Time to Head for the Woodlands

Time to Head for the Woodlands

May 9, 2022

For Iowa birding enthusiasts, the month of May is a time like no other — the absolute high-water mark of the annual outdoor calendar.  The reason is simple.  After spending the winter months in food rich habitats in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, millions of neotropical songbirds are making their way to northern nesting grounds.  

Indigo bunting – Although some spring migrants may be a challenge to identify, the strikingly iridescent blue plumage and melodious repertoire of the male Indigo bunting make it hard to mistake for any other bird. Attracted to wood margins and dense, brushy habitats, Indigos are a pleasingly widespread summer resident of Iowa’s rural landscapes.

It’s an epic migration.  Many species – including some of the smallest — will travel thousands of miles between winter and summer habitats.  For the most part, human eyes will not witness the annual spectacle.  For the majority of these colorful migrants, the miracle of migration will take place in inky darkness as flocks employ starry constellations, magnetic fields and other, certainly more mysterious, factors to navigate the vastness of the night sky.  At the approach of dawn, wing weary travelers descend to earth where they replenish spent reserves.

A red breasted grosbeak makes a North Iowa stopover. Wintering as far south as Peru, grosbeaks are among dozens of species of neotropical songbirds currently passing through the state. As is the case with other neotropical birds, rose breasted grosbeaks annually conduct epic migrations. Crossing the 600-mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico in a single nighttime flight is listed among their most amazing feats.

During the next few weeks, dozens of songbird species will stop in Iowa for food and rest.  Although many will stay to nest and rear their young in our grasslands, greenbelts, and woodlands, millions more will continue to the coniferous boreal forests and subarctic tundras of northern Canada. But the Canadian summer is short.  For northbound birdlife, there is little time for delay.  Here Today, Gone Tomorrow is the migrants’credo.  Those who wish to enjoy the show must strike while the metal is hot.

Plugging In:  Iowa is blessed with a vast array of Birding Hotspots — more than you might imagine, in fact.  Regardless of region, there federal, state, and county managed natural areas offering spectacular opportunities for birding as well as other outdoor recreational activities.

Some areas are small.  Others are large.  Three of my favorites include Stephen’s State Forest, the Yellow River Forest, and the rugged blufflands adjacent to the Mississippi River in extreme northeast Iowa.  Each area offers its own version of the crème de le crème of spring birding.  Although abundant, spring migrants can be as shy and secretive as they are colorful.  Accurate identification can, at times, present a challenge – especially in dense foliage.  Avoid frustration by tossing in your favorite Field Guide, binoculars and spotting scope.

Scarlet tanager – The scarlet tanager, is one of America’s most brilliantly colored songbirds. Bedecked in a blazing coat of scarlet-red plumage accented by glistening raven-black wings and tail, the colors of the tanager are so intense that they scarcely seem real. A long distance neotropical migrant, scarlet tanagers winter as far south as Bolivia. By the end of April, tanager males begin arriving in Iowa. The first females usually begin showing up several days later. Although some tanagers nest in Iowa, the species has proven extremely sensitive to ongoing forest fragmentation. As forest lands retreat, survival is further threatened as tanager nests are parasitized by female cowbirds.