The record-breaking snowstorm of May 2 and 3 led to some unusual bird sightings. There’s just something wrong with the picture of a male Baltimore Oriole eating suet in a heavy snowstorm, but that’s what some friends of mine up along the Skunk River had at their window throughout the storm. I was enjoying an unusually large flock of White Throated Sparrows at my house. Unlike the oriole, they’re seed eaters and were feeding heavily on extra seed I scattered where the spreading boughs of spruce trees kept snow from covering it too quickly. They were joined by a Lincoln’s Sparrow, a pair of Harris’s Sparrows, and a White Crowned Sparrow. The sparrows always migrate through Iowa fairly early in the season. Some even winter here in mixed flocks, so I wasn’t surprised to see them. I was most surprised, however, to notice a poor, wet, and miserable looking male Indigo Bunting feeding with them. He spent the entire storm near our house and was joined by another summer bird, a Brown Thrasher, before it was all over.
I normally don’t splurge on hulled sunflower hearts for my birds. Most of the birds that eat seeds do just fine cracking out their own hearts from black oil sunflower seeds. The little sparrows and the bunting, however, looked like they might appreciate the easy energy provided by the special feed. The Brown Thrasher and even a few Robins decided that was pretty good, too, at least until warmth returned and made their more favored insects and worms available. It wasn’t long before word got out that there was gourmet fare at my yard and the local squirrels and even rabbits showed up to feed with the birds. Modern digital cameras have allowed even average photographers to play around with wildlife photography. I was able to crack a window open, zoom in on the feeding sparrows and the bunting, and capture several nice images. It’s still amazing for me to look at that dark blue summer bird with big fat snowflakes falling all around it.
Nasty weather with strong north winds slowed the normally rushed spring migration of many species, allowing Iowans a chance to see things they might have missed otherwise. A friend and I were able to observe some Wilson’s Phalaropes out at Colo Bog as we drove by one of the roadside wetlands. I hadn’t seen one of those since a summer spent working in Montana back in 1966. Some of these unusual shorebirds nest as close as western Minnesota, but they’re an uncommon migrant here. They are one of the few species where females are the more brightly colored of the pair. Although the females still lay the eggs, they completely reverse the sex roles followed by most birds. The male phalarope incubates the eggs and raises the young while the female goes her own way. The females even pursue the males in courtship. Phalaropes have an unusual feeding technique, too. They don’t have webbed feet, but they swim readily and often turn in rapid, tight circles to create little whirlpools that draw small aquatic organisms to the surface where they are picked out of the water.
Wood warblers will be with us for the next several weeks. An early morning spent with binoculars at places like the Skunk River Greenbelt, McFarland Park, Robison Wildlife Acres, and Ames’ Inis Grove, Brookside, East River Valley, and Lee Parks along with Munn Woods might net an alert observer more than a dozen species of these little airborne jewels. A few of them feed near or even on the ground, but most will be well up in the tree canopies flitting from branch to branch in search for insects among the swelling buds and new leaves. All but a few nest farther north and they’ll be gone by the time the woods reach full leaf. The return of warmth after all the recent moisture means that a few lucky (or skilled) woodland walkers will also return with a bag full of lovely morel mushrooms. No matter whether it’s spring wildflowers, warblers, or mushrooms that draw you outdoors, you’ll need to find time in the next couple of weeks to enjoy spring at its finest.