CWD Clouds the Future of Iowa Whitetails

February 15th, 2017



“A quiet crowd,” mused Dale Garner, pondering the nearly 400 people crowded into Johnson’s Reception Hall in Elkader

Perhaps the hunters, landowners, and others who’d come to learn more about the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Clayton County were simply resigned to the fact that the deadly deer disease had arrived. With CWD in Wisconsin since at least 2002, and its 2013 documentation in Allamakee County, how long could Clayton County continue to dodge the bullet?

CWD especially affects the brain, spinal fluid, and lymph nodes of deer. Symptoms may not appear for several years, but the always-fatal disease eventually will cause the animal to virtually waste away.

Deformed proteins called “prions” cause CWD. Unlike infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses, prions don’t cause the animal to produce antibodies. The prions can be spread to other animals through direct contact, saliva, and other bodily fluids. Prions also may survive in the soil or elsewhere in the environment for years. They can only be killed by temperatures of 1600 degrees F or more.

CWD – which can affect deer, elk, moose, and reindeer – was first discovered in Colorado in 1967. It has since spread to Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota, and other states.

Garner, who heads the Conservation and Recreation Division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, tried to offer a little good news about the Clayton County situation. The afflicted deer, found northwest of Elkader during the December shotgun deer hunting season, is the first out of more than 7,000 that have been tested in Clayton County since 2002. It could be an isolated case. IF we move swiftly, we may be able to stem the spread.

                         Standing Room Only
                      (photo by Joleen Jansen)

But, in reality, it’s sobering to have to admit that CWD is here in our county’s wild deer herd, which arguably has been the best in the state. Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Hunters first shot a deer that tested positive for CWD near Harpers Ferry during the 2013 shotgun season. Sixteen more cases have been found in that area through early this year.

What’s the future? For now, DNR officials are asking hunters and landowners to use free scientific collection permits to kill about 250-300 deer from a surveillance zone in about a 5-mile radius around the site where the afflicted deer was shot. The permits will be valid Feb. 18-March 5.

DNR biologists will check collected animals and remove lymph nodes to be tested for CWD. If the test is negative, the venison may be consumed or donated to the Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program. Any deer that test positive will be disposed of in a landfill.

Garner said shooting the deer in the surveillance zone would help determine if there are more animals affected, while also reducing deer populations. Lower deer numbers – below the herds of 100 or more that sometimes have been seen in that part of the county – could slow possible transmission of the disease.

Garner also discouraged the practice of feeding deer, or establishing mineral or salt licks, which unnaturally causes large concentrations of whitetails, and thus increases the likelihood of animal-to-animal contact. Hunters also should dispose of deer carcasses in heavy-duty plastic bags in landfills, rather than leaving them on the landscape.

Scientists do not believe that CWD can be transmitted to humans – but the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization warn against eating meat from infected deer. Garner recommended that hunters who dress a deer suspected of carrying CWD wear rubber gloves and disinfect their equipment with a strong bleach solution.

Sigh.

What a change since I shot my first Iowa white-tailed deer more than 54 years ago! Or since my son shot his first deer 25 years ago. Or even since two of my grandsons harvested deer within the last two years.

Will our family – and other Iowa families – be able to continue this tradition . . .?

CWD Surveillance Zones

Deer traditions

December 18th, 2016


 

Too little!

Too little!

 

Variety – is the spice of deer hunting.

What fun would it be if all a hunter had to do is wait patiently for an hour or two, shoot a deer, and be done for the season?

The reality is, well, never what you expect.

You heard a pileated woodpecker – but did not expect to see it perched on a dead elm for you to admire its back-and-white-and red plumage.

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

You’d heard Canada geese over the Turkey River – but did not expect to see a flock of trumpeter swans swoop low over the valley.

A handsome 8-point buck appears out of the trees just after daybreak, then pauses just 30 yards away from your blind. But you’ll let him grow at least another year. Someday, he may become a REAL trophy.

But wait! He’s got a companion! Ah, the doe you’re looking for to provide some venison for the table. She lingers just long enough for you to squeeze off a shot.

The commotion of field dressing and bringing the tractor to haul out the harvest disturbs the woods only temporarily. Within hours, the crows have found the gut pile, and they loudly caw to invite their brethren to dine. Nothing goes to waste in the natural world.

The next day, an eagle joins the feast. You’d seen and heard bald eagles – but did not expect one to crash the crows’ grisly party.

Snowy woods

Snowy woods

The next day also brings snow, which clings to trees and branches like a hazy curtain. The extra layer on branches and tree trunks obscures what’s beyond – making it even easier for deer to escape your detection as they slip noiselessly through the woods. You might THINK that white snow should make it easier to see a gray deer. But it’s amazing how much a gray deer can look like a gray tree trunk in a black-and-white world of snow falling in the forest.

Black-white-gray

Black-white-gray

Luckily, you can hide behind the same curtain. A cluster of gray shapes materializes in a thicket across the valley. And more luck finds you beside a sturdy oak that doubles as a blind and a gun rest. Still more luck moves one of the gray shapes into a window among the branches and shrubs. Just a little more luck results in a one-shot kill.

Bedded in snow

Bedded in snow

You call your hunting buddy to help with the gutting and dragging out of the deer – which turns out to be a buck that already has shed one antler. He looks a bit comical with 4 sturdy points on one side – and only a scar on his skull on the other.

Luck? Lucky you didn’t shoot the animal a few minutes later. By the time you get it dressed, dragged to the waiting tractor, and hauled back to the house, it’s pitch dark – and getting colder!

And colder! As temperatures drop on the following day, the deer must sense the onset of real winter. A plump little buck, perhaps made restless by the weather, makes the mistake of wandering past your motionless hunting buddy, who soon has the makings of his winter’s venison.

Sit tight!

Sit tight!

 

A successful season, you say? Ah, but there’s more!

Time to continue a family tradition begun a quarter of a century ago, when your son shot his first deer. Grandson number one has already bagged his first whitetail, and his younger brother is eager for his chance.

Don't get TOO comfy!

Don’t get TOO comfy!

 

Lots for a 12-year-old to remember: all the safety rules from hunter education class, and from tagging along with Dad and Grandpa almost since he was old enough to walk; sitting oh-so-quietly under the tree; choosing the deer (not too little!) you want to shoot; passing up “almost” opportunities; waiting for just the right sight pattern without obstructing brush; patience! And more patience!

Dad & son

Dad & son

The pieces finally come together! And the grinning young hunter proudly tags an 8-point buck!

After the trophy is safely field dressed and loaded into the truck, the hunters gather around the table for Grandma’s lasagna and cookies – and stories. And more stories! And emails to friends and to Mom and younger siblings.

Excited?! Well, ALMOST as excited as his Dad and Grandpas.

Derek's first deer!

Derek’s first deer!

That’s why they call it “hunting” . . .

November 15th, 2016


Super moon

Grandson Isaac and I were thinking “turkey” as we quietly sneaked along the ridge on the way to our chosen spot to sit and wait. But Isaac’s young eyes spotted a patch of gray that said “deer” instead.

 

We froze and watched briefly before the huge buck sensed us and bounded away. We both grinned. Maybe he’ll still be here in a month or so, when the deer season opens.

Big buck

Big buck

Suddenly, a dark shape swooped down from the blufftop and swung downriver. We often see bald eagles along the valley – but it’s always a thrill.

 

When we paused to follow the eagle’s flight, a loud “kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk” echoed through the trees. A pileated flapped and soared its way through the trees and across the river.

 

Despite the exciting interruptions, we finally picked separate trees where we could sit (in our camouflaged folding seats!) to await the turkeys’ hoped-for appearance. Isaac kept watch on a flat woodland at the bottom of the slope, while I used binoculars to scan the river’s edge and the floodplain beyond.

river overlook

River overlook

We listened intently for the raspy “yelp-yelp-yelp” of a turkey – but all we heard was the even less musical screeching of bald eagles.

 

A cool breeze rattled the dry oak leaves, and the “yank-yank” calls of a pair of nuthatches broadcast their bark-probing hunt for an afternoon insect snack.

 

I snapped out of my bird-watching mode at the sound of more rustling and rattling in the leaves, very close by. Deer? Turkey? No – just a noisy gray squirrel. It stopped long enough to get suspicious, then scampered up a nearby tree.

Under a turkey tree

As I searched the branches for the elusive squirrel, a spot of black in the field across the river caught my. Through the binoculars, I could make out four turkeys foraging in the harvested soybean field.

 

Meanwhile, Isaac also was watching a wildlife show, as four deer ambled through the woods far below him. Hmm, he suggested later. Why don’t we build a deer blind down there?

 

By sunset, the “super moon” was rising above the far hill. But still no sign of the flock of turkeys, which we’d predicted would roost in the trees we were watching.

 

So, as we walked home in the moonlight, with Venus as a beacon in the southwest, we planned tomorrow: perhaps the turkeys had gone to roost on the other side of farm, along the steep creek valley.

 

Next morning, 5 a.m. came AWFULLY early! The sky was still dark, and Orion (the hunter!) still stalked the southwestern sky. The “super moon” was just disappearing in the west.

 

With a quick breakfast of toast and hot chocolate, and a layer of long-johns to ward off the morning chill, we headed for the creek valley. The eastern horizon now glowed a faint pink, but Jupiter still shone brightly, a hand-width above the trees.

 

Once again, we selected separate trees, and sat down to wait.

Sunrise in the turkey woods

Before long, the raucous, pre-dawn crow chorus signaled the awakening of the woods. It was as if the crows would not calm their scolding until the sleepy sun decided to peek above the hill.

 

Then the leaves rustled, as three deer trotted along the trail behind us. Two does and a little buck, Isaac said later. More deer slipped silently through the edge of the prairie in front of us, visible only to Isaac. Had I dozed off – or are Isaac’s sharp eyes that much better than mine?

isaac hunting turkey

Isaac, the camo kid

But no turkeys.

No matter.

 

We’d enjoyed hikes in the woods, scouted for deer hunting spots, and gotten a bit of exercise. And as a bonus, we lunched on Grandma’s home-made venison chili and fresh corn bread (with honey!)

 

“Hunting.”

 

Huntin' buddies

Huntin’ buddies

Natural Connections

October 15th, 2016


NaturalConnectionsFrontsmaller

 

 

Have you ever snacked on goldenrod grubs? They’re slightly sweet, says my daughter, Emily, who HAS tasted them!

 

Crazy? Finicky folks might think so. But this sort of behavior is not a surprise to her parents – who proudly raised this “mud and water daughter.” We’re also proud of her new book, “Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature Through Science and Your Senses.”

Emily Stone at work

Emily Stone at work

As naturalist/education director at the Cable (Wisconsin) Natural History Museum, Emily now leads kids (and adults!) on forays to learn about goldenrod gall fly larvae, the life history of loons, or fascinating fall fungi. And she writes a weekly “Natural Connections” column that’s carried by about 20 newspapers in northwestern Wisconsin and nearby Minnesota. The book is a collection of some of her favorite columns.

Flashes of Red by Susan Lewis

Flashes of Red
by Susan Lewis

Most of her writing follows the advice of Mary Oliver, one of Emily’s favorite poets, who suggested “Instructions for living a life.”

 

“Pay attention . . .

“Be astonished . . .

“Tell about it!”

 

Whether on ambles through the Northwoods, bike rides, commutes to work, or slogging through a bog, Emily is constantly distracted by small (or large!) natural wonders that pique her curiosity – and astonishment. Then – as an admitted science nerd – she calls upon her own knowledge, picks the brains of experts, or uses a Google search to learn “why.” (A goldenrod grub tastes sweet because of the glycerol concentration. Loons that “yodel” are ready to fight for their territory. The scientific name of a puffball is Lycoperdon pyriforme, Latin for pear-shaped wolf fart.)

Why Wisconsin Forests Look the Way They Do Kaia Neal, age 13

Why Wisconsin Forests Look the Way They Do
Kaia Neal, age 13

One of her goals, Emily confesses, is “to see the world a little differently.” Thus, she sometimes shares the simplest things with her readers: “encountering a spider during my morning yoga, seeing the stars on a late drive home from a program, weeding my garden, or even being bitten by insects.”

 

“… the opportunity for nature connection is all around us, all the time,” she writes. “I’d like to inspire you to look a little closer and discover your own natural connections wherever you are.”

 

Always a teacher, Emily slyly enticed young people to learn even more, as she hosted a contest for kids to submit drawings to illustrate the book. The results were a delight. Kids as young as five drew squirrels, rainstorms, snakes, grasshoppers, warblers, dandelions – even ice fishing from the fish’s eye-view! Additional drawings by adults also capture the “connections” theme of the book.

A Crappie Evening Ryan Nechuta, age 6

A Crappie Evening
Ryan Nechuta, age 6

Appropriately, “Natural Connections” is divided by seasons. Readers can help welcome spring’s “Furry Little Monsters” (red squirrels), summer’s “Mosquitoes,” fall’s “Woolly Weather” (woolly bears), and winter’s “Mythical Beasts (wolverines).

 

Although she writes from her home in the “Northwoods,” Emily’s enthusiasm for “natural connections” can translate into almost any environment. She’s not forgotten the mud puddles, anthills, prairie grass, and woodland flowers of her Iowa childhood, despite having explored wild rivers, mountains, and coastlines. She might even find a “connection” in the corner of your living room.

Tracking Stories Brynn Johnson, age 11

Tracking Stories
Brynn Johnson, age 11

To order Emily’s book, “Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses,” visit  http://www.cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/     The cost is $25, including postage.

NOTE: Emily will hold a book signing at the Elkader Public Library from 10:30 a.m. until noon on Friday, November 25.

Rugged, beautiful land protected by working together

July 13th, 2016


adapted from Iowa’s Natural Heritage, Spring 2016

www.inhf.org

 

pasque flowers

pasque flowers

 

A textbook example of partnerships among private landowners, conservation organizations, and government agencies has protected an UN-ordinary natural area in an extraordinary corner of Iowa.

 

More than 3,000 acres of wild lands – centered on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ 680-acre Iverson Bottoms Wildlife Area – sprawl across the meandering Upper Iowa River Valley in Allamakee and Winneshiek Counties. The complex represents a decades-long effort by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa DNR, and conservation-minded landowners.

 

Goat prairies, limestone ridges, mature woodlands, and river bottoms contain diverse wildlife and plant communities. Indian mounds denote earlier peoples’ connections to the region. Canoeists, hunters, bird watchers, and botanists find areas as wilderness-like as anything in Iowa.

Along the Upper Iowa

Brian Fankhauser along the Upper Iowa

IDNR wildlife biologist Terry Haindfield calls it “the best country in the whole wide world.”

 

“The core is something special for wildlife,” he said. Expanses of forest, with farm fields, hill prairies, and the Upper Iowa River corridor, shelter deer, turkeys, ruffed grouse, and songbirds. Wintering deer seek the secluded blufflands. Reclusive bald and golden eagles, rattlesnakes, river otters, and bobcats find refuge in the rugged Upper Iowa valley.

 

The unique area requires complex management, Haindfield said. The stewardship plan protects large woodlands for forest interior bird species, while occasionally using clear-cuts to create habitat for grouse and songbirds that need more brush.

 

Timely harvest of mature oak stands, before maple and basswood take hold, will ensure future mast-rich oak-hickory forests for squirrels, deer, and turkeys. Controlled fire on prairie remnants will stimulate grasses and forbs that have been suppressed by encroaching cedar trees, Haindfield said. Land managers also must maintain pleasing viewsheds, avoid damage to steep slopes, and protect Native American mounds and other archaeological resources.

 

spring burn

spring burn

Brian Fankhauser, blufflands director for INHF, said safeguarding the land builds good relationships. “Sometimes what it takes is to own something . . . and actively manage it,” Fankhauser said. “Then the neighbors say, “these guys care!’” he said. “I think that opens doors.”

 

The project required many partners. The state acquired the first 338 acres in 1981, using funds from federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear, along with Iowa “Open Spaces” money.

 

INHF added a key tract with the purchase of the 1,224-acre Heritage Valley from the estate of Forrest Ryan in 2007. Although not contiguous to Iverson Bottoms, Heritage Valley is just upstream along the Upper Iowa River. The DNR’s 495-acre Canoe Creek Wildlife Area is only a mile or two farther upstream. And the 694-acre Pine Creek Wildlife Area connects with Heritage Valley.

Pasque flower photo opp

Pasque flower photo opp for Brian Fankhauser

More recently, INHF and IDNR cooperated on four additions that doubled the size of the original Iverson Bottoms area. Using donations from supporters, INHF negotiated land deals that might have been difficult for a state agency constrained by timetables and budgets.

 

For example, INHF acquired 22 acres at Iverson Bottoms by trading the owner an 18-acre tract in another part of the county. The trading partner donated conservation easements on that 18-acres and another 58 acres.

 

Iowa’s Resources Enhancement and Protection (REAP) funds cost-shared two other parcels.

 

IDNR also used $387,500 from the Protected Water Area (PWA) allocation of REAP, said Todd Bishop, special projects coordinator for the IDNR’s wildlife bureau. He and Nate Hoogeveen, director of river programs for IDNR, put that money toward buying the 212-acre Ryan-Mahoney tract from INHF.

Fire to open up prairie vistas

Fire to open up prairie vistas

Pat Ryan, son of the late Forrest Ryan, worked with INHF to protect the site, which includes 1.5 miles of Upper Iowa riverfront and half a mile of Pine Creek. His father was passionate about preserving the area – especially the Indian mounds on a bench above the floodplain, Ryan said.

 

 

That mound group may be the most prominent Native American site in the region – but certainly not the only one, said Colin Betts, professor of anthropology at Luther College in Decorah.

 

The Upper Iowa Valley has “a really rich archaeological legacy,” Betts said. “There is no doubt that it represented an important location for people going back thousands of years.”

 

Although IDNR now owns most of the Iverson Bottoms Wildlife Area, INHF will retain 29-acre Solitaire Ridge, which it acquired in 2010. Fankhauser said it’s one of the largest hill prairies in northeast Iowa. Birders go there in winter to find Townsend’s solitaires – birds that normally live in the west. Golden eagles also winter there.

 

With unusual wildlife and plant communities, scenic vistas, high-quality streams, archeological treasures, and corridors connecting public and private conservation areas, the Iverson Bottoms area – and the surrounding Upper Iowa blufflands – showcase Iowa’s natural and cultural heritage at its best.

Solitaire Ridge

Brian Fankhauser climbs Solitaire Ridge

 

 

 

 

 

The merry, sensory month of MAY!

May 12th, 2016


Morel!

Morel!

 

Black flies!

 

Some people might curse the little devils and cringe at their arrival.

But I prefer to look on the bright side and note that the first bites from the mini-monsters also signal the coming of merrier miracles of May.

 

Morels, for example!

OK, so some of you probably found your first tasty mushrooms in April. But it’s usually May before morel season hits its peak.

Crab apple

Crab apple

Fresh morels are a good excuse to put chicken on the grill, pick some asparagus, and round out the meal with fresh lettuce from the garden. You eat while sitting at the picnic table to enjoy the smell of the crab apple blossoms and hear the buzzing of bees nectaring among the fragrant flowers.

wild geranium

Ah, the flowers! To be sure, hepaticas and bloodroots and rue anemones and Dutchman’s breeches brightened the otherwise brown forest floor in April – or even late March. Now, the bright-yellow buttercups and lavender Sweet Williams and pink wild geraniums sometimes struggle for attention in the sea of green that carpets the woods.

Golden Alexander

The prairie blooms later. But our April burn removed the duff and darkened the ground enough to speed the warm-up – and trigger the golden Alexander to bravely poke up its aptly-named flower.

A hen turkey also welcomed the burn, where it had become easier to find meals of insects. Perhaps she was scouting for places to bring her poults, which should be hatching soon.

Hen turkey in burned prairie

Hen turkey in burned prairie

May migrants celebrate the bird world’s seasonal joy. Rose-breasted grosbeaks warble all day. House wrens jabber from a brush pile.

Rose-breasted grosbeak eating hackberry flowers

Rose-breasted grosbeak eating hackberry flowers

Baltimore orioles snack on our grape jelly offerings. We heard the scarlet tanager’s distinctive, sore-throat song, but could not locate the songster in the rapidly greening woods. The flitting redstarts were more cooperated, and danced through the treetops only a few yards away.

Orioles like grape jelly!

Orioles like grape jelly!

A rare whip-poor-will emphatically announced its presence at dusk. Will the bird nest, or is it only passing through?

 

No doubt about the resident bluebirds, which already have nested – successfully! A quick peek in the nest box reveals one fuzzy nestling beside yet-to-hatch blue eggs.

Bluebirds starting to hatch

Bluebirds starting to hatch

The robin and phoebe – acclimated to human comings and goings – each have set up housekeeping under the eaves of the house, right near the front door. They’ll soon be feeding their broods – and gobbling up insects and worms.

Momma robin sitting tight

Momma robin sitting tight

We hope the luna moth, which hovered after dark near the light from our window, is too big for most birds to attack, however.

Luna moth

Luna moth

 

Yes, a luna is green – and GREEN is the color that almost defines May. On an otherwise gray and drizzly day, the fresh, bright green of new leaves on the maples, oaks, basswoods, and boxelder almost glow with life. Walnuts are slower to leaf out – but even their tiny, unfurling leaflets shout SPRING!

GREEN, even in the rain

GREEN, even in the rain

 

Ah, May! Can we handle the sensory overload?

 

Sweet William

Sweet William

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too early?

April 19th, 2016


SunriseSunrise

As much as I struggle to get out of bed when it’s still dark outside, the spring turkey hunting season reminds me that waking up TOO early invariably is worth the effort.

Maybe we should take a cue from birds and animals, with their unbounded enthusiasm for the break of day. A white-tailed deer – only its white flag visible in the half-light – bounds away from the human intruder stumbling along the woods-edge path.

With only the slightest hint of gray in the east, the field sparrows and robins already have started their wake-up calls to the rest of woodland community. The Sibley field guide describes the field sparrow’s song as “an accelerating series of soft sweet whistles . . .” The repetitive robins sing their musical phrases over and over – especially when they’re greeting the dawn.

Do these little birds wake up the turkeys – or is it vice versa? No matter. The booming gobbles of a half-dozen Toms echo over the river valley in answer to hens’ seductive yelps.

Off in the distance, barred owls trade questioning hoots: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

A titmouse joyously sings “Peter-Peter-Peter!” A pileated woodpecker defines his territory with drum-like pounding on a hollow tree trunk. The red-bellied woodpecker can’t match the booming of his larger cousin, but his more subtle yet incessant “tap-tap-tap-taps” warn any rivals to keep their distance.

As the pink of sunrise tickles the treetops, the crows begin scolding. Predictably, the old toms gobble an answer, looking for any excuse to brag about their virility.

The cardinal brags, too. “Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!” he sings from a treetop. A pheasant crows from the neighbor’s grassy field. Canada geese cruise up and down the river, honking noisily.
You’re less than thrilled to hear the gurgles of a flock of cowbirds. The pesky parasites soon will be looking for others birds’ nests in which to lay their eggs, crowding out the rightful owners.

Despite your bias against some of the musicians, you delight in the dawn symphony. A chipping sparrow’s “chip-chip-chip-chip” makes up in determination what it lacks in originality. A blue jay first scolds “jay!” then reverts to his two-part call often described as the squeak of a rusty pump handle. A high-pitched rattle betrays the downy woodpecker, hidden behind the dead elm.

A female bluebird softly chortles from a perch just above your head, then graciously accepts an insect breakfast tidbit offered by her mate.

Silently, a great blue heron soars high above the performance, wisely deciding not to interrupt with the only “squawwwwk” a heron can muster.

Brown thrasherBrown thrasher

The brown thrasher, in contrast, is so impressed with his own musical prowess that he perches atop the highest tree, repeating each phrase to be sure we don’t miss a note.

The chattering song sparrow tries not to repeat, other than weaving in a regular “tea-kettle” to its diverse repertoire.

Song sparrow Song sparrow

Even with the background music, your mind wanders to the other joys of the spring woods. Spring beauties, bloodroots, false rue anemones, and Dutchman’s breeches are in full bloom. A few hepaticas linger on cooler slopes. Bellworts, anemones, wild ginger, and squirrel corn have sprouted their first flowers. The gooseberry leaves are unfurling, and the wild plum buds show just a hint of white petals.

 

squirrel cornSquirrel corn

 

spring beautySpring beauty

bellwortBellwort

You’re startled back to the moment by a great cackling and yelping and gobbling and putting in the nearby woods. The turkey tribe is working its way up the hill. Have they actually fallen for the ruse of your motley decoys and your laughable attempts to sound like a lovesick hen?

Inquisitive TomInquisitive Tom

As a pair of strutting toms ambles closer and closer, you almost lament their gullibility. It took a hunting license to give you the incentive to attend the eventful early-morning recital. But the day has been such a success that you can’t wait for the next too-early morning – when your only license is one to simply savor the sights and sounds of April in Iowa.

Rue anemoneRue anemone

 

Ice? Snow? So what? It’s SPRING!

March 26th, 2016


 

Pasque flowers

Pasque flowers

Despite occasional setbacks, it’s SPRING!

 

On one sunny day, pasque flowers bloom on a ridge in a northeast Iowa goat prairie. Then – hardly 24 hours later – your flowerbed crocuses seem to shiver under an icy jacket left by a late-winter storm.

 

Cold crocuses

Cold crocuses

Ice also coats the swelling buds of an ironwood tree, until the sun finally musters enough power to free them.

 

Icy ironwood

Icy ironwood

As buds swell in the soft maples in the river bottoms, the trees take on a reddish tinge, which almost glows in the first light of a March sunrise.

 

Soft maple

Soft maple

Icicles and snow may linger in the moss of a north-facing slope – while snow trilliums bloom bravely just a few yards away.

 

North slope icicles

North slope icicles

Snow trillum

Snow trillum

The song sparrow heralds the season by singing its “tea kettle” song from a conspicuous perch atop a leafless shrub.

 

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

Goldfinches turn a motley, patchy, yellow-green as they transition from drab winter plumage to their lemon-colored summer suits.

 

Motley goldfinch

Motley goldfinch

A bold tom turkey gobbles at dawn, then puffs his feathers to scout the woodland edges for still-reluctant hens.

 

Turkey tom

Turkey tom

The first great blue heron of the season stalks the Mississippi backwaters – perhaps hoping that spring floods will push a hapless frog or wandering fish its way.

 

Hungry heron

Hungry heron

Puddle ducks harvest the waste grain and weed seeds of a farmer’s inundated cornfield.

 

Ducks in a puddle

Ducks in a puddle

A pair of mourning doves shares the bounty of your bird feeder, fueling their bodies for the rigors of egg-laying and parenting.

Lovey-dovey

Lovey-dovey

 

The Canada goose already had begun incubating her eggs on the island in the pond, so she simply hunkered down to stoically ride out the storm and protect her yet-to-hatch clutch of goslings.

 

Dedicated goose

Dedicated goose

Look for more blooms. Listen to the bird songs. Smell the neighbor’s prairie fire. Touch the cool, damp earth. Taste the freshness in the air.

Savor the season!

 

Spring fever?

February 21st, 2016


Fall leaves, winter snow, and spring moss mark the seasonal transition

Fall leaves, winter snow, and spring moss mark the seasonal transition

 

“Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!” proclaimed the cardinal, announcing his delight at the approach of spring.

 

You may have scoffed at that happy song a few weeks ago, with temperatures in the single digits and calf-deep snow in the woods – but Mr. Cardinal knew what he was singing about.

 

OK, it’s still February, and we’re bound to have more snow and frigid temperatures. But we HAVE gained more than 100 minutes of daylight since the shortest day of the year last December 21.

 

That increase in day length is not lost on the pileated woodpecker, who has started his staccato drumming to let females know that he’s available for the upcoming breeding season.

 

A hardy bluebird returns early to await the spring

A hardy bluebird returns early to await the spring

The bluebirds returned to check out the birdhouse a couple of weeks ago, but they seem content to wait until well into March to begin starting a family.

 

Most other birds remain relatively quiet in the waning days of winter. Our journal says that the goldfinches should sport the first bright-yellow feathers ‘most any day, however. And southern Iowa birders are tallying migrating waterfowl by the thousand.

A hen pheasant searches for food uncovered by the snowplow

A hen pheasant searches for food uncovered by the snowplow

 

The snowplow and the warm sun have cleared the roadsides down to grass and gravel, inviting pheasants to search for grit or spilled grain. You marvel at the tough birds’ survival through the recent winds and ice and bitter cold spells. With the reprieve of a warm spell, the birds should be able to put on enough fat reserves to help them through the inevitable end-of-winter blast we Iowans have come to expect.

 

Lingering snow accents the gray-brown on the February forest floor

Lingering snow accents the gray-brown on the February forest floor

On a stroll in the woods on a mild afternoon, the first impression is of grays and browns and patches of lingering white. But as you look more closely, you begin to see green tinges of moss, accented by tiny, red fruiting bodies that already have sprung up to meet the sun. Little green rosettes of garlic mustard (grrr!) have lurked under the fallen leaves all winter. Unfortunately, the invasive plant will have a head start on spring ephemerals when they try to poke through the duff in another six weeks or so.

 

Mosses have sprouted fruiting bodies in anticipation of spring

Mosses have sprouted fruiting bodies in anticipation of spring

The sunny days and above-freezing nights have kept the snow melting steadily, making the river high and chocolaty. Too many acres of bare soil translate into erosion and runoff from farm fields – and rising streams.

 

Even with the swift current and brown water, an impatient fisherman is casting below the riffles. You wish him luck. And then your own casting hand starts twitching. Spring fever is contagious!

 

 

An eager fisherman is undeterred by high water and swift current

An eager fisherman is undeterred by high water and swift current

 

 

HUNGRY!

February 4th, 2016


 

Hungry coyote gnaws on a deer carcass

Hungry coyote gnaws on a deer carcass

Cold. Snow. Ice. Spring is still a month away. The easy-to-get food already may have been consumed. The sun’s rays – if they peek through the overcast – pack only marginal warmth.

 

That’s why some Native Americans called February the time of the “Hunger Moon.”

 

You have to empathize with wildlife’s struggles this time of year.

 

A hungry coyote – which normally might fill its stomach by catching rabbits or mice under the cover of darkness – ventures into the cold daylight to gnaw on bones of a six-week-old deer carcass left over from hunting season. Can there be enough dried scraps of meat, fat, or sinew to make the effort worthwhile? Perhaps – if you’re hungry enough!

 

After the coyote moves on, the crows return to continue pecking at the remnants – as they have for several days. The birds must find SOMETHING, or they wouldn’t keep returning. Or maybe they visit the bone pile out of habit, expecting a replenished banquet that never happens.

 

Opossum looking for scraps

Opossum looking for scraps

Is it that wishful thinking that brings the opossum to the deer remains on a warm afternoon? For no more nourishment than the animal gained, it probably would have been better off saving its energy and staying asleep in its winter den.

 

Feed me!

Feed me!

After an overnight snowstorm, the goldfinches and juncos flock to the feeder, scratching impatiently for fresh sunflower hearts, and seeming to plead, “Feed me!” to the slow-moving human benefactor.

 

Sharp-shin

Sharp-shin

Please don't eat the purple finch!

Please don’t eat the purple finch!

But the birds themselves better not move too slowly, lest they become breakfast for the sharp-shinned hawk. The sharpie has learned that our bird feeders are its bird feeder, too. We hope the little raptor will settle for one of the abundant goldfinches, and not snatch our cute chickadees, titmice, or purple finches.

 

White-footed mouse

White-footed mouse

The bird feeder feeds more than birds, too. Many evenings, white-footed mice scramble up to the tray to nibble on scraps of sunflower seeds. But one night, another shape appeared at the feeder. Perhaps the screech owl had learned a good place to hunt for its favorite prey.

 

Screech owl in search of mouse

Screech owl in search of mouse

Even the larger critters have to work harder when snow and ice coat the land. Pheasants scour open fields for seeds – even though their forays make them more vulnerable to predators. Tough tom turkeys venture out onto a windswept hilltop, where the snow has been blown away and they can forage for waste grain or seeds.

 

Vulnerable pheasant

Vulnerable pheasant

Hilltop toms

Hilltop toms

Deer – at their peril – may hang out on roadsides, and even bed down there, where snowplows have scraped down to grass and forbs. The dry vegetation probably hasn’t retained much flavor or many nutrients – but it’s probably better than munching on prickly junipers.

Roadside deer

Roadside deer

 

I feel a twinge of guilt as I throw another log on the fire in the wood stove, and brew a cup of hot chocolate in the microwave. But then we browse the nursery catalogs, planning the annual spring ritual of tree and shrub planting. Maybe a few more dogwoods, wild plums, serviceberries, white pines, and bur oaks will give our critters a bit more habitat that will help them survive future winters.

 

Cold, dry lunch

Cold, dry lunch