April 2nd, 2017

The first hepatica!

The season “officially arrived” a couple of weeks ago. And even before that, the red-winged blackbirds had tried to push winter north in late February.

Not until the first hepatica blooms will I concede that winter has passed, however.

Thus, we poked among the leaves on the north slope, enjoying the early-April warmth, hoping to see a hint of white or purple accenting the dead-brown oak and maples leaves.

Mother Nature didn’t disappoint. A clump of white hepaticas almost glowed in the afternoon sun. The hairy stems, rising from the flat, mottled, liver-colored leaves on the ground, held the blossoms erect to capture the rays.

The more we moseyed around in the woods, the more traces we saw off the new season. Most spring beauties had just begun to emerge from the cool, damp forest soil. Only their grass-like leaves hinted of the flowers to come. Some leaf axils sprouted tiny buds, however, and a few plants on a south-facing bank had opened to reveal their pink-veined, white petals.

Spring beauty

Clusters of feathery green leaves announced the coming of Dutchman’s breeches – but it may take another week or more of warm weather for the pantaloon flowers to hang themselves on the clothesline stems.

Leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

A few insects joined our woodland safari. An eastern comma butterfly – a bit ragged after over-wintering under some loose tree bark – sat quietly to soak up the sunlight.

Eastern comma

A tiny wasp lit on my fingertip and posed for several minutes, as if not wanting to leave the warmth of my skin.

Friendly wasp

We should have known that the insects had emerged, since a phoebe arrived last week to explore its traditional nest site under our house eaves.

Song sparrows returned about the same time, announcing their presence with a cheerful, chattering song. (But what would you expect from a bird whose species name is “melodia?”)

The song sparrow’s strident singing contrasts with the bluebird’s quiet chortling. And often the bluebird is content to sit silently in the tree just outside my window, where his oh-so-blue feathers are radiant in the morning sun.

Male BLUEbird

The once-noisy Canada geese have suddenly fallen silent, however, after they built their nest on the island of the neighbor’s wetland. Don’t approach the incubating goose too closely, though or the gander – whose chief duty is to stand guard – will honk vociferously and even charge menacingly at a human or animal intruder.

Canada goose

Talk about noise? Just after sunrise, the tom turkeys are having a gobble-fest. They challenge each other, the cawing of crows, and perhaps even the sun itself. Later, two old toms strut in a clearing at the edge of the woods, puffing their feathers and fanning their tails to lure an unseen hen.


OK, it really is here! SPRING!







The tragedy of lead . . .

March 3rd, 2017

Dining on death?



There, grotesquely sprawled in the snow, lay our national symbol.

The adult bald eagle apparently had been dead for some time.

It had fallen near the Turkey River, hidden at the base of a bluff. A friend just happened to find it while exploring a remote valley.

How could it happen?

Surely no poacher or vandal would shoot it here, a mile or more from any road access. And there are no power lines for at least that far.

Silent symbol

Could it be lead poisoning?

But we and our neighbors have used copper deer slugs for years, and have required other hunters on our land to do the same. But eagles can and do travel miles to feed, with plenty of opportunities to pick up lead elsewhere.

How to find out?

Enter Linette Bernard and Kay Neuman, with “Saving Our Avian Resources,” (SOAR), based in Dedham, Ia. With the necessary permits to handle eagles, they agreed to take the dead bird for necropsy. The necropsy included weighing and measuring the beak to determine gender; an x-ray to look for evidence of trauma, fractures, gunshot wounds, or ingested lead; and a sample of liver tissue. The Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Ames analyzed the tissue sample.

And the conclusions were NOT pretty, Linette conceded.

The eagle, a female, was very thin, weighing only seven pounds. Neuman could find no lead fragments in her system – but her liver lead indicated she was lead poisoned.

“A bald eagle’s digestive system is so efficient that food/stuff is metabolized/digested more completely (think owls and their pellets with bones and fur, versus an eagle, (which) may only pellet fur and things like rabbit toenails),” Bernard explained. “This efficient digestion is great for utilizing all that is eaten, but not good when what was eaten also contained lead fragments.”

The eagle apparently had eaten something (a deer carcass?), somewhere, that had been contaminated with lead. That meal or meals resulted in tragic consequences.

It doesn’t take that much lead to kill an eagle, Bernard said. A fragment only the size of a grain of rice can be lethal. And lead deer slugs may leave many such pieces of “shrapnel,” throughout the gut piles or even the meat of deer shot by hunters.

lead slug shrapnel in gut pile

Sadly, poisoned eagles may suffer a lingering death. At first, lead in their system may make the birds lethargic, slow their reflexes, and make them weak and more prone to accidents, such as getting hit by cars. The birds lose control of their wings and legs and organs, have impaired vision, and may vomit, and have lime-green feces. What a horrific way to die!

The poisoning occurs because lead mimics calcium in the bodily systems, and replaces essential calcium with toxic lead. The only treatment – which is very expensive and usually succeeds only if the bird can be treated early – is chelation. This requires twice-daily injections of a medication that binds to the lead to form a compound that can be excreted by the kidneys.

SOAR annually sees up to a dozen or more bald eagles that have lead poisoning, Bernard said. They feel lucky to be able to save and release any of them. From December through February, SOAR received 14 eagles, 8 of which had high lead levels. Only one has survived, and it’s still uncertain whether she can be released.

In 2016, SOAR received 13 lead-poisoned eagles, one of which they were able to treat and release.

The answer? Phase out lead ammo – and lead fishing tackle, for that matter. We’ve known for decades that lead is a toxin. Time to stop spreading it around the environment.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has put a roadblock in front of that effort. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has rescinded an Obama administration rule that was intended to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on all lands, waters, and facilities managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The National Rifle Association described the January 19 Obama directive as “a last second attack on traditional ammunition and our hunting heritage.”

Calling Obama’s order “a hasty and thoughtless attack” on the hunting community, Safari Club International said “Secretary Zinke returned science and reason to federal decision-making about ammunition use.”

Science, however, tells us that lead is poison. The debate really is about whether we should continue using it for the sake of “tradition,” and whether it would cost hunters and fishermen/women too much to go nontoxic. AND, of course, what this could mean to the profits of the big sporting goods and ammunition manufacturers.

That political debate seems destined to rage on. But if you’re a hunter who cares about eagles, you can and should switch to copper slugs for deer, and to nontoxic shot for doves and other game birds. (The world did not end when we went nontoxic for waterfowl in 1991!) And if you like to fish, and you like to see loons and swans and ducks, start using non-lead jigs and weights.

Yes, I’m an old-timer who likes “tradition.” But this is the 21st century. Time to get the lead out!

How many more must die?

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.


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.



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!)




Huntin' buddies

Huntin’ buddies

Natural Connections

October 15th, 2016




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



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




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


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


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.




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!