Late May is a time that no Iowa birding enthusiast would care to miss. With thousands of northbound songbirds arriving at local woodlands daily, it is one the year’s premier outdoor events – the grand finale of the spring migration.

The diversity is daunting. More than 200 bird species nest in or migrate through Iowa each spring. And while birds such as orioles, tanagers, buntings or grosbeaks may be hard to miss, others – such as the more than 30 visiting species of wood warblers – provide greater observational challenges. Sometimes a quick flash of color is all you get before the bird is gone.

Rose-breasted grosbeak

The rose-breasted grosbeak is one more than 200 bird species currently migrating through Iowa.

But regardless of which feathered creatures may be nearby, there are some basic common-sense tips that will take you a long way toward improved viewing. Getting up early pays dividends. Most birds are most active during the first hours of daylight. Just as the early bird gets the worm; early birders get more sightings.

Once you’re in the woods, keep noise and movement to a minimum. Stay in one spot for a least a half hour. You’ll do a lot better if you let the birds find you instead of doing it the other way around. Wearing dark or camouflaged clothing will help blend into your surroundings. Don’t forget the binoculars and bird book. There’s no better time to key out a bird than when it’s hopping around in front of you.

scarlet tanager

A male scarlet tanager displays his colorful spring finery. The tanager’s scarlet red plumage is so stunningly bright, you almost need sunglasses to view it.

Location is everything. And although every hedge and thicket is likely to harbor its own feathered treasures, larger [public] habitats generally yield greater numbers and greater varieties of birdlife. Two of my favorite high yield locations are the Nature Conservancy’s 250-acre, Clausen’s Cove Area located adjacent to Farmers Beach Road on the South Shore of Clear Lake and the 700-acre, Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City. Both areas offer a rich mix of hardwood timber, dense understory, and are liberally sprinkled with small wetlands. For birding diversity, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Yellow-throated warbler

A male yellow-throat warbler searches for insects near Clear Lake. Often seen in dense foliage near small wetlands, the yellow-throat is easily identified by its raccoon-like mask.

One last tip. There’s an old adage that says, “strike while the metal’s hot.” For North lowans, that’s certainly sound advice when it comes to spring birding adventures. For many spring migrants – including nearly all the warblers – the flight will continue all the way to the wilderness pine forests of northern Minnesota and Canada. Some will travel all the way to subarctic tundras. For many neotropical species, Iowa is but the half-way point between winter and summer homes. The annual nesting season is brief and, from a bird’s point of view, there is no time to waste. “Here today -- Gone tomorrow” is a migrating bird’s credo.

Viewing the spring migration is something that can’t be put off. To make the most of current opportunities, North Iowa birders need to strike while the metal’s hot.

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Enjoy more wildlife tales online at Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog


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