Fall is a busy time for Iowa wildlife. Some animals are beginning to hibernate, while others are caching food in preparation for the harsh winter months. But some, like waterfowl, are heading south. And, this time of year provides the perfect opportunity to observe these birds as they venture south on their annual migration.
Many people think that birds fly south in the fall because it gets too cold around here in the winter. But, it has more to do with lack of food than cold weather. Most of the birds that migrate south are birds that depend upon food that is only readily available during the warmer months. Many birds head south because they’re insect-eaters and there aren’t many insects around during the winter. Hummingbirds head south because the flowers they need for nectar are gone. And, waterfowl journey southward because they get much of their food from the water and there isn’t a whole lot of open water around here during the winter months.
So, at this time of year, you are often able to see a wonderful variety of waterfowl flying through our state. In fact, north-central Iowa is one of the best places in the state to observe the waterfowl migration because of the numerous “pothole wetlands” that we have as a result of the glaciation that occurred in this part of the state over 10,000 years ago. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and their bottomlands, are also great places to see this migration.
So, what kind of birds can we see during the waterfowl migration? Well, altogether, there are 32 species of waterfowl that are regularly found in Iowa at some time of the year. These include common nesting species such as Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and Mallards. There are about a dozen other species that often nest in certain parts of the state, as well. But, in the fall, we can often see other species that do not commonly nest in our state, but fly through on their southerly journey. These include White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, Green-winged Teal, Gadwalls, Wigeons, Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks, and Scaups.
Observing waterfowl at this time of year is easy to do. Simply grab a pair of binoculars and a field guide, then head out on the roads looking for wetlands. When you find a wetland, it is best to stay in your car. Birds often get spooked if they see people emerge from cars; in fact, cars actually make wonderful blinds from which to observe birds. Using your binoculars, slowly scan the water. Once you find some birds, identification is usually easy, as long as they’re on the water; flying birds can be harder to identify. Nonetheless, seeing a flock of ducks or geese flying overhead can be a lot of fun to see.
And, don’t forget…waterfowl migration often depends upon local weather conditions. As the snow and cold sets in further north, more birds get pushed south. Likewise, as our waters begin to freeze over for the winter, the birds will continue to move on to warmer climes. So, get out while you can to enjoy this annual event! Here in north Iowa, we are lucky to have the opportunity to experience a wonderful waterfowl migration. Don’t let it pass you by.