3:30AM!

Coralee, Harmon, & I began last Saturday morning around 3:30AM.  (I think Harmon actually woke up closer to 3:50AM.)  Coralee was registered to attend an Iowa Young Birders event to count Sandhill Cranes with Bremer County Conservation as part of the Annual Midwest Crane Count along with over 1,000 other volunteers throughout the Midwest.  Unfortunately, we got word Thursday evening the trip was cancelled due to most of the young birder registrants being either sick or cancelling for other reasons.  But we are tough birders, the Bodekers, so Coralee & I decided to go anyway & emailed the Bremer County Naturalist ourselves Friday morning.  She sent us directions to a fire number on the southern boundary of Sweet Marsh State Wildlife Management Area.  We were to meet up with a seasoned crane-count volunteer at 5:30AM the next morning.  The drive would take us over an hour & I had no idea where it was, hence the 3:30AM wake up.

I made much coffee at 3:30AM.

This is Sweet Marsh closer to 6:30AM (I think sunrise was officially a bit after 6:40AM on Saturday).  The gravel on the right leads to the dike which is where Coralee was officially placed as a counter.  Marsh is to the left of the dike.

We were in site 2.

The count takes place every year around this time in roughly 90 counties in an effort to survey both Sandhill & Whooping Crane numbers.  Whooping Cranes are endangered, Sandhills are not, but both are equally beautiful & worthy of protection in my opinion.

Harmon slept most of the drive north from our house, woke up screaming when we arrived to the parking lot on the edge of the Marsh, in the PITCH BLACK, then fell asleep again about 10 minutes after Coralee took off to count (nursing to the rescue).  The count officially took place from 5:30-7:30AM.  We arrived at 5:20AM to the lot.  The other volunteer arrived shortly after.  It was a bit awkward to get out of the car and approach her in the dark…I worried I would spook her or she wouldn’t actually be who I thought she was…although, I figured, who else would be out here in the middle of nowhere at this hour…she turned out to be an amazing count companion for Coralee.  She is a teacher (a Talented & Gifted teacher like me) and extremely personable.  Coralee took off down the dike with her, binoculars & clipboard in hand, to count cranes (by sight and/or by sound) at promptly 5:30AM.  I tried for a selfie with Harmon when he woke up in order to document something, apparently his nose itched. 😉

Later, once the sun rose, Harmon listened to the countless geese honking in the Marsh just beyond the car’s windows.

Then he looked at books.

He also ate an almond butter sandwich & spilled water all over the car.  At least it wasn’t coffee.

Coralee & her count companion saw three Sandhill Cranes, heard none, which is apparently strange.  We are not sure how many in total were submitted from the entire count site yet, but last year our site submitted 63.  Coralee & I definitely want to visit Sweet Marsh again in the next several weeks to bird.  It is amazing habitat amidst a sea of corn.  I didn’t see much from the car, obviously, but upon leaving we spotted a Sandhill Crane flying low near the Marsh, so at least I added my FOY Sandhill Crane to my 2017 birding list.

Brian, Merritt, & June were at Merritt’s first soccer game of the spring season on Saturday morning.  Upon arriving home later, Coralee & I ate an early lunch & then went to bed.  I think Harmon & I slept for over two hours.  Good napping & good birding.

Edited to add: Numbers are in–64 this year!!!  One more than 2016!

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Artwork Auction for Conservation: The American Kestrel

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“Vanishing in Plain Sight” by Coralee Bodeker

This is a “guest” blog post from my eldest, Coralee.  She writes a semi-monthly essay/column titled “A Prairie Girl’s Notebook” for both our local county conservation newsletter & for her email list of readers.  She’s been writing/illustrating the column since the fall of 2013 (when she began her homeschooling).  This particular essay is about a North American bird species–the American Kestrel, one of her [& my] favorites.  If you’d like to own a high-quality canvas print of the above drawing of an American Kestrel [with his second foot tucked up into his feathers–she gets asked about his “one foot” a lot], be sure to read to the very end of the post today!  Thank you!

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A Prairie Girl’s Notebook, Issue 23

January 5, 2017

Kestrels, An Iowa Legacy

A few years ago, a short drive down my gravel road would yield at least one, if not two, American Kestrels perched on a power line or hovering mid-air above the grassy ditch. These vibrantly colored, miniature falcons peppered the roadsides, diving into ditches whenever a car passed. Today, Iowa still hosts a breeding and wintering population of American Kestrels, but I have begun to count myself lucky to drive past a mere one kestrel per week rather than the daily sightings. This same scarcity has been occurring across the state; anecdotally, many birders are noticing fewer and fewer American Kestrels in their local areas, while hard data from formal Hawkwatch sites illustrates a steady decline. Scientists and raptor counters at Hitchcock Nature Center in Pottawattamie County (Iowa’s only full-time Hawkwatch site) have recorded an overall downward trend in migrating American Kestrel populations for the past decade.  In our neighboring state, the Illinois Beach State Park Hawkwatch has recorded similar data trends. To put this in perspective, despite a considerable rise in contributing datasets, Bird Studies Canada also shows a downward drift in American Kestrel numbers since the 1950s and a recent nosedive spanning the past decade—Bird Studies Canada draws these numbers from a bank of over 7.6 million North American bird surveys including Hawkwatch counts, annual Christmas Bird Counts, FeederWatch reports, eBird surveys, and breeding bird surveys, to name a few. The decline in the American Kestrel population has been slowly looming, but it wasn’t until last fall that I truly noticed the scarcity in my own area. No breeding pairs nested near my neighbor’s prairie last summer for the first time in at least eight years.

Possibly the biggest hazard for American Kestrels to overcome today is the loss of their precious habitat. The once large expanses of pastures and prairies sufficient to sustain hunting American Kestrels have been crammed into roadside ditches as more and more land in Iowa is converted to farming.  More importantly, however, their nesting sites are being diminished. American Kestrels normally nest in dead trees on the edges of open grassland, but these trees are being removed (for a variety of reasons) and local American Kestrels are scattering to the wind. This species has more recently tried moving into towns and out of the rural areas in an effort to overcome habitat loss, but in towns American Kestrels face the threat of larger birds of prey, specifically the Cooper’s Hawk which will eat a kestrel.

A further danger facing American Kestrels is a decline in flying insect populations, which kestrels depend on to feed their young. A few years ago, when Iowans filled their cars up with gas they routinely wiped down their windshields to clean off the copious amounts of smashed bugs, but today many Iowans are finding the need for a Casey’s squeegee quite unnecessary.  I hadn’t given this conundrum much thought until rather recently when I obtained my learner’s permit to drive.  A disturbing example of how an often-overlooked animal can disappear literally before our eyes.

With fewer Kestrels around my home, I wonder what has happened to their daring aerial displays, their hunting chases and jaw-dropping turns and dives I’m so used to watching? What has happened to the American Kestrels that once lined the roads and swooped out over the fields as cars passed? Did these birds simply disappear over the horizon to some distant state? Will the same thing happen to the American Kestrel that has already happened to so many other North American raptors, suddenly plummeting off the population charts like the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey did so many years ago (albeit for other reasons)? Or will insightful, smart, compassionate people step in to save the American Kestrel before that last-hour collapse?  My hope is we can help the American Kestrel in time.  Iowa needs American Kestrels like we need the prairies and clean water.  This is Iowa.  This is our legacy.

 ‘A Prairie Girl’s Notebook’ is inspired by ‘A Naturalist’s Notebook’ penned by John Schmitt & found in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird journal.

If you would like to own a high-quality 12-inchX16-inch canvas print of the American Kestrel I drew for this essay and support American Kestrel conservation and research at the same time, PLEASE consider participating in my eBay auction (an eBay account is required in order to bid).  All proceeds from the auction will be split evenly between the Pottawattamie Conservation Foundation (funds earmarked for the Hitchcock Hawkwatch) and also The Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership which works to advance conservation of the American Kestrel.  The auction runs for seven days and can be found using this web address: https://tinyurl.com/jfkf42c

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Canvas up for auction.

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Entry on the American Kestrel from Coralee’s Field Notebook.

References

Chi, Dora.  “Tracking Kestrels One Feather at a Time.”  Audubon.  National Audubon Society, 18 Aug. 2016, http://www.audubon.org/news/tracking-kestrels-one-feather-time.  5 Jan. 2017.

Davis, Kate.  American Kestrel: Pint-Sized Predator.  Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2014.

HawkCount.  Hawk Migration Association of North America, www.hawkcount.org.  Accessed 5 Jan 2017.

NatureCounts.  Bird Studies Canada, http://www.bsc-eoc.org/birdmon/default/main.jsp3. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.

Toll, Jerry.  Iowa Young Birders Trip to Hitchcock Hawk Watch/Hitchcock Nature Area, 24 Sept. 2016, Hitchcock Nature Center, IA.  Address.

Birds, Butterflies, & Treehouses :: A Saturday Well-Spent

(This post is a trifle late to print.)

A couple weekends ago–on July 11th–we had planned to spend the day in central Iowa on an Iowa Young Birders trip, but the trip was cancelled due to stormy weather. We were already packed up, in the car, & on the road when we got the cancellation call & since we’d already blocked the whole day out for the trip, we figured we’d head west anyway.

First stop–a birding spot in the southern part of our county (Benton) that Coralee & I have been meaning to visit for several months. Officially it’s called the Iowa River Corridor Central Wildlife Management Area-Hwy 21 Access. It’s a large hodge-podge swath of various public lands cobbled together along the river, surrounded by agricultural fields.  We picked up a fantastic county bird–Dickcissel.  It looks a lot like an Eastern Meadowlark, but smaller and more sparrow-like.  We counted 5 separate individuals & all were singing loudly & beautifully near the road.  Photos below were digiscoped by Coralee through binoculars, so a bit blurry.
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We had planned to eat lunch in Ames, Iowa (home of Iowa State University) at the Great Plains Sauce & Dough Co.–one of the first places Brian & I went on a date together in the spring of 2000.  The kids do not particularly like the pizza nor the atmosphere & always roll their eyes when we dine there (about once a year), but, hey, we were young & fun once, too!  We arrived in Ames a bit early for lunch, so went over to ISU’s Reiman Gardens.  The butterfly house was the highlight of the stop without a doubt.  June LOVES butterflies & could have lived in the building, I’m sure.
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We then toured the outside gardens for about an hour.  The kids loved the current exhibit–InTREEguing TREEhouses.  According to the website, visitors can “[e]xperience the beauty of the natural world from a new perspective with this interactive outdoor display featuring treehouses scattered throughout Reiman Gardens. Each playhouse showcases the talents of local architects and artists, and are inspired by a unique cultural or social event.”IMG_5079[1]

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World’s Largest CONCRETE Gnome!

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Our favorite treehouse–The Aviary.  It featured several pieces of artwork designed to resemble the real nests of various bird species.
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Before we departed the Gardens, we checked out the butterfly/moth incubator.  June was entranced.IMG_5158[1]

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Our last stop was the site of the planned Iowa Young Birders trip.  We didn’t get much chance to bird here due to the insane heat & humidty by mid-afternoon & also the proximity to June’s naptime.  It appears to be an excellent birding hotspot, we’ll have to visit again with more time (& less heat!).IMG_5160[1]

I think we made the most of a day interrupted! 🙂

Birding sustains

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Male Red-bellied Woodpecker (left)

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker (left)

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (left)

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (left)

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In the Pileated Woods.

In the Pileated Woods.

Pileated Woodpecker hole.

Pileated Woodpecker hole.

June made the summit!

June made the summit!

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Purl photobomb; this dog loves to sled.

Purl photobomb; this dog loves to sled.

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It’s been cold.  Cold.  COLD.  Tree limbs rattling in the wind sounded like popping fireworks the cold has been so cold.  Beyond frigid, we entered into intense arctic cold.  It felt algid outside for over a week thanks to the winds which pushed daytime temps to around -20’F & nightime temps a further 10-15 degrees south.  Just too cold.

Last week consisted of an early out, no school, no school, late start, & ended with a late start.  Mostly due to the cold, but Tuesday’s no school resulted from over 6 inches of snowfall the night prior.  Then the wind blew most of it away.  The woodlands are well-supplied with snow now.  Open spaces are fairly barren & there’s been zero melting.

The kids & I accomplished very little last week.  We watched birds from inside the house using our scope & binoculars several hours total each day.  Birding kept us sane!  We had a new species visit our feeder–Eurasian Tree Sparrows, invasive birds released into the Saint Louis area prior to the 1900s.  The species hasn’t spread too far beyond its release area, but apparently there are established populations in Iowa.  Coralee & I were a bit giddy initially to spot a new species, but the feeling wore off once we realized it was here to stay.  Not the nicest birds.  The Hairy Woodpeckers & Blue Jays take little of the Eurasians’ attitude, but it bullies the chickadees, native sparrows, nuthatches, & Downy Woodpeckers at our feeders.  An unwanted guest for certain.

On Sunday the entire family ventured outside in the late afternoon & explored the woods on our southern boundary.  We’ve renamed the area ‘Pileated Woods’ as the older kids discovered Pileated Woodpecker holes along the creek!  I have only ever sighted a Pileated once on our property, about five years ago.  The holes look fresh & Pileated Woodpecker pairs stay together in the same location year-round, so Coralee is devising a plan to locate the individual(s) soon.  Exciting!

June enjoyed climbing on her hands & knees up & down the bank along the creek.  Everyone, including one of the dogs, went sledding right before dark down the front hills.  Brian & I skied (with June on my back) twice this weekend across the alfalfa field–the trail is mostly grass now.  Window birding has been the mainstay around here as of late.

How do you pass the time indoors when it’s truly disagreeable beyond your windows?