Recovery continues from the fallout of the Mother’s Day Migration

Mothers who happen to be backyard birders received the ultimate gift Sunday courtesy of none other than Mother Nature, herself.

In a rare and coincidental but serendipitous alignment of timing between the migration of neotropical songbirds from Central and South America and thunderstorms rolling through on Saturday night into Sunday morning, Central Iowans experienced what’s known in birding circles as a “fallout.” Simply put, a fallout is a natural occurrence where migratory birds are forced down by adverse weather in a way that makes them congregate in large numbers.

What that meant for those prepared and fortunate souls who had their feeders full, and even many who didn’t, was they awoke Sunday morning to a euphonic panoply of some of the most beautiful birds on the planet. This was avian nirvana and nothing short of stupendous.

Our small and sheltered backyard in north Ames was teeming with a salubrious smorgasbord of tropical visitors from some of the Western Hemisphere’s most tantalizing locales: the Andes Mountains, Yucatan Peninsula, Costa Rica and islands in the Caribbean Sea. Feeders offering black oil sunflower and safflower seeds, peanuts, tree nuts, dried fruit and grape jelly were overwhelmed by dozens of rose-breasted grosbeaks and Baltimore orioles, and smaller numbers of orchard orioles, gray catbirds and Swainson’s thrushes. Other common local birds competing for spots at the feeding stations when they saw an opening included cardinals, robins, house finches, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, European starlings, Carolina wrens, house sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers.

Along nearby rivers and more thickly wooded areas friends reported seeing dramatic numbers of warblers, such as Tennessee, Nashville, black and white, yellow, Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, magnolia, palm and orange-crowned among others, as well as a variety of kinglets, vireos and flycatchers.

On Monday, the frenetic activity of feeding grosbeaks and orioles in our backyard continued, and the list of intriguing species grew with the appearances of a brightly colored male indigo bunting (a rarity in our yard through the years) and a male and female scarlet tanager pair (also an uncommon visitor to the yard). If you’ve ever seen a male scarlet tanager with its electric blood-red body and jet-black wings, you likely haven’t forgotten it. They’re one of the most gorgeous birds you’ll ever see in this part of the world.

With strong southerly winds pushing through the area on Tuesday, the stream of migrants showing up at the feeders in our yard dropped off dramatically with the majority of birds from the previous two days presumably taking advantage of a significant tailwind to continue on their northerly migration. A few orioles and grosbeaks made stops at the seed and jelly feeders, but by then the majority of visits to feeders were being made by local birds in the process of setting up nesting territories of their own.

By Wednesday, just a handful of grosbeaks and orioles were seen hanging around our yard (although a couple of ruby-throated hummingbirds made appearances late in the day), leaving us with a somber reminder of the intensity and relative brevity of the spring songbird migration. But we will never forget the two glorious days we were inundated with a deluge of neotropical birds in what will be remember as the Magnificent Mother’s Day Migration.

Close encounters with wildlife on the Gunflint Trail

                  GRAND MARAIS, Minn. – Rounding a blind corner my foot reactively moved from the accelerator to the brake. Ahead, just a few hundred feet, two vehicles were pulled over on the shoulder of the paved road. On northeastern Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail, like national parks and other wilderness areas frequented by tourists, parked vehicles with people standing beside or hanging out of windows with cameras, cell phones or binoculars in hand usually means one thing: an animal of interest has drawn the attention of passersby.

                  In this case, a large, brown mass barely moving in the middle of a bog some 200 feet or so from the edge of the road had the rapt attention of three individuals. I eased in behind a Subaru with a young woman sitting on the panel of the driver’s side door, window down and cell phone recording the activity.

                  Simultaneously the three of us in the vehicle shouted, “Moose!”

                  Sure enough, there in the distance was a large, healthy-looking cow moose browsing on aquatic plants. Cattails and rushes obscured the lower half of her body, and every minute or so her head would also disappear. Several seconds would pass before she would lift it up into view again, water pouring out of a mouth stuffed full of green vegetation.

                  I pulled out my binoculars and climbed out of the truck as Stephanie and Elizabeth hurried to find their cell phones before starting to take photos and videos of the cow, which showed no interest in her growing audience. Soon three more vehicles joined us on the side of the road, while a fourth and a fifth stopped in the middle of the oncoming lane to take a peek.  Fortunately, on this scenic and historic byway in the Superior National Forest, most of the locals appear to anticipate and perhaps even expect such spontaneous roadside gatherings. Here, encounters with wildlife are an everyday way of life.

                  In fact, this was our second stop to observe the local fauna. Thirty minutes and several miles prior, we had stopped to watch a red fox that had plopped down in the middle of the road. The curious canine’s nonchalant behavior seemed to communicate it was unconcerned for its safety. We enjoyed the closeup encounter, and Elizabeth took several photos before resuming our drive, leaving behind the handsome fox and hoping it would safely make its way back into the woods where the threat of human vehicles would be quickly replaced by the ever-present danger of a potential encounter with a local wolf pack.

                  Back at the bog, I struck up a conversation with the woman who had been the first to see the moose and pull over. She’d seen another cow at the edge of the same bog when she first rounded the corner, but when she pulled over, it had quietly slipped into the nearby woods and vanished. It was a moment later that she saw the other cow grazing in the center of the bog. For someone who had grown up in northern Minnesota and had spent many a weekend in recent years driving the Gunflint Trail with the unfulfilled hope of seeing North America’s largest member of the deer family, seeing two moose in the span of minutes was an experience to savor.

                  Stephanie and I, too, savored the time watching the cow, reminiscing as we did about our first time up the Gunflint Trail some 25 years ago. It was on that memorable occasion that we had first watched a bull moose feed in a small roadside pond. Later that morning, we saw a cow moose trot through a meadow. A few autumns later, we stopped near sunset at another pond on the Gunflint Trail and joined several other travelers who were mesmerized by a bull and cow moose cavorting near the edge of a stand of red and orange maples set ablaze by the day’s final shafts of sunlight. To our astonishment, with darkness quickly descending, the cow suddenly began running up the bank toward us with the bull charging behind her. Our last contact with them was hearing their hooves clicking on the blacktop road only a few yards away before descending the other bank and crashing into the now black forest.

                  There would be no such dramatic exit by the moose on this day. The cow, finally having gotten her fill of supper, slowly stepped out of the bog and in a few strides was gone from our view, slipping into the woods and leaving us with a few inferior photos and videos but also vivid memories to add to a treasure-trove of previous wildlife encounters.

Todd Burras can be reached at

A red fox appears almost as interested in the photographer in the car as she was of the handsome and curious canid. Photo by Elizabeth Burras
A cow moose is difficult to see as she stands in a bog while feeding on aquatic plants in the Superior National Forest. Photo by Elizabeth Burras taken on an iPhone through Vortex Viper 10x42HD optics

Change is in the air and water and …

By Todd Burras


One morning earlier this week I put up a new birdhouse. Within minutes of it being set up, Stephanie hollered to let me know a black-capped chickadee was perched on top of the structure’s roof, inspecting the new housing addition to the backyard.
That’s how it is outdoors during these natal days of spring: there are things happening everywhere one looks. Bees buzzing. Cardinals courting. Daffodils stretching out of the dirt toward the warming sun. That’s the nature of nature. It’s always dynamic and never static. Even in the dregs of winter when many of us seemingly shut down for days and weeks at a time, nature keeps on keeping on – changing, evolving, living. Still, when spring arrives, those changes seem to be more abundant, accelerated and evident.

That’s what I experienced during a walk off the beaten track at Ada Hayden Heritage Park a few days ago. Of course there were robins hopping all along the trail and in seemingly every tree and bush, just like there have been in nearly every yard across the city during the past two weeks. A flock of goldfinches flew overhead and Canada geese, mallards, ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers came and went at a dizzying pace. American tree sparrows flitted among branches on trees that revealed swelling buds in the light of the sunny day.

It was once I left the gravel path and headed through the dense prairie plants on my way to get a closer look at some of the small wetlands on the west side of the park, however, that things got a bit more interesting. In each shallow-water cell I inspected, I counted dozens of dead fishing floating along the shores and on the mudflats.
“We often see a winter kill on carp, which is good,” said Erv Klaas, professor emeritus of animal ecology at Iowa State University. “I wish we could eradicate carp; they are not good to have in the wetlands.”

Common carp can overwhelm shallow lakes and wetlands by continuously stirring up the first trophic level. The constant movement of the bottom-feeding carp produces wave action that dislodges the root systems of healthy aquatic plants and also creates turbid water that prevents the germination of seeds and limits the amount of sunlight young plants can gather, thereby preventing them from growing. Essentially, carp can kill a healthy-functioning aquatic ecosystem.

Another resident making small – at this time – alterations to the park is the beaver. Or, in this case, a family of beavers. Evidence of their presence can be seen in numerous places around the park.

“Yes, the beaver are taking down a few trees but nothing of much value at the moment,” Klaas said. “If they start chewing on big cottonwoods along trails the city puts wire around the trunk to discourage them.”

In the past couple years, beavers have focused most of their gnawing energy on the stands of willows that encircle most of the small wetlands. They’ll be allowed to call the park home for the foreseeable future.

“The city relies on the Friends of Ada Hayden Heritage Park group to advise them on management issues, and, right now, we are not advocating any active management of beaver except to let them along unless they cause problems,” Klaas said.

So while the beavers can stay, some plants need to go.

“The Friends group plans to bring back ‘Goats on the Go’ this summer to attack the honeysuckle in the savanna (on the southeast side of the park),” he said. “I think the city will bring back the Conservation Corps this spring to work on eradicating Siberian elm, as well.”

Whether it’s a favorite city park or your own front or backyard, spring is a time of dynamic change in the outdoors. Slow down a bit and keep your eyes peeled. You never know what you might see.


Todd Burras can be reached at

Fueling up for the journey north



Darked-eyed juncos are migrating through central Iowa on their way to northern breeding grounds. Juncos eat millet sunflower hearts and will nibble on safflower.

By Todd Burras

Lots of people this time of year are looking for phenological occurrences that serve as harbingers of the approach of the warmer weather they rightly expect to find in spring and summer. The lengthening of days in the form of more light, the singing of male cardinals, the budding of trees and bushes, the emergence of cold-tolerant plants, such as crocuses and daffodils, and the arrival of robins and turkey vultures are some of those more obvious signs.

The large numbers of dark-eyed juncos visiting my backyard is one of the signals I’ve come to rely on over the past decade as evidence of the changing seasons.
Juncos have been hard to miss in the past two weeks. Similar in size to finches and most sparrows, a junco’s identity is most easily recognizable by its telltale flashy white “V” tail feathers as they fly about.

While some of these small slate- and charcoal-colored birds spend their winters in central Iowa, in recent days they’ve been showing up in extraordinary numbers as they migrate from more southernly states to their nesting grounds farther north in Canada. They can be seen constantly hopping beneath our feeders searching for millet and sunflower chips to fuel their remainder of their migration journeys, wherever that takes them.

Juncos may lack the verve of gregarious chickadees and the panache of many other colorful songbirds, but winters wouldn’t be the same at our home without them. Year after year they are a staple in the backyard feeding next to the chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals and downy woodpeckers that often get more paid more attention by those interested in birds.

Juncos will be gone soon, but hopefully next fall they’ll start showing up here again shortly before the snow flies. Until then, we’ll enjoy the rest of spring and summer without them.

Winged Wonders
While juncos lack colorful panache, neotrocipal birds don’t.

Vibrant-colored hummingbirds, orioles, grosbeaks and buntings will start showing up in Mid-Iowa within the next couple weeks, and there are some things you can do to entice a few of them to visit your backyard and to even perhaps spend the spring and summer in your neighborhood.

Tom and Linda Thomas, owners of Wild Birds Unlimited, will present “Spring’s Winged Wonders,” an in-store seminar, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at 213 Duff Ave., in Ames. The event is free, but registration is requested to reserve a seat by calling (515) 956-3145.

Clean those birdfeeders
The spring migration is picking up, and if you aren’t already feeding your backyard birds, it’s time to put up the feeders.

Before you do, however, it’s a good time to get those feeders scrubbed and cleaned to eliminate potential disease for your feathered friends.

Wild Birds Unlimited’s annual spring birdfeeder cleaning fundraiser will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at 213 Duff Ave., in Ames. The cost is $5 per feeder, and proceeds go to Gilbert Boy Scouts Troop 157. Additional donations will be gladly accepted.

Feeders can be dropped off at the store during normal business hours starting Wednesday, April 11, through noon, Saturday, April 14. Cleaned feeders can be picked up late Saturday afternoon or between noon and 4 p.m. Sunday, April 15.

For special dropoff and/or pickup arrangements, call WBU at (515) 956-3145.

Litter and wildflowers
Wildflowers are another sign of spring (and unfortunately so are large amounts of trash), and you’re invited to get outdoors to see some of these delicate beauties while exploring Story County on a couple of guided hikes on Sunday, April 22.

Story County Conservation Board Member Nancy Franz will lead an Earth Day Hike from 1 to 3 p.m., at McFarland Park, 56461 180th St., north of Ames. Pick up litter and discuss how to improve and protect the Earth while looking for wildflowers and other signs of spring during this free hike. Participants must register by 4 p.m. Thursday, April 19.

Also that day, a Story County Conservation naturalist will lead a spring wildflower hike from 2 to 4 p.m. at Robison Wildlife Acres, 29490 632nd Ave., near Nevada. This free hike is of moderate difficulty but suitable for families with small children. Register by 9 a.m. Friday, April 20.

Call (515) 232-2516 to register for either hike.

Todd Burras can be reached at

Craning not necessary to see these Sandhills

By Todd Burras

SOMEWHERE IN NEBRASKA – A pair of long, gray shafts sliced through the gunpowder-colored sky like one could imagine a couple of arrows released by Pawnee or Lakota warriors might have some 200 years ago.
The two flew straight and true despite cutting through a hellacious headwind out of the west that pounded vehicles – even overturning a semi and trailer in the middle of the east-bound lanes at one spot — and prompted travel advisories farther north because of accompanying snow squalls.
This was an overcast morning early last week with sustaining winds of nearly 40 mph near Kearney in south-central Nebraska, a small city of some 35,000 people living in Buffalo County near the Platte River. For those that have traveled that way, Kearney might be memorable, if for no other reason, than it’s home to The Archway, a unique pioneer and Native American museum that stretches over Interstate 80.
Kearney is in the heart of Nebraska, and by extension, one of the primary outposts of a sort of transcontinental thoroughfare that’s connected the East and the West coasts for centuries. This is a corridor that’s seen Plains Indians on ponies, soldiers on horseback and European settlers in covered wagons. This is a landscape that served the Oregon and Mormon Trails, the Pony Express, the Union Pacific Rail Road and the Lincoln Highway.
Today, Kearney and its surrounding land of sand hills is home to cattle feedlots, no-till cropland, irrigation systems, an endless connection of barbed wire fencelines, prairie hawks, tumbleweeds, cottonwoods, coyotes and antelope.
For a couple weeks each spring, it’s also a Mecca of sorts for birders from around the Midwest and beyond as millions of birds in the Central Flyway follow a portion of the Platte River on their way to breeding grounds farther north. This is an area where anyone from the keenest birder to the average traveler driving the interstate can spy huge flocks of red-winged blackbirds and gulls, rafts of mallards and pintails, and waves of snow geese mile after mile after mile. In a society that’s been hijacked linguistically by the abuse of hyperbole, “spectacle,” in fact, is truly the only word that accurately attempts to describe the simultaneous movement of millions of waterfowl and other birds.
As interesting or not as any of that is to unsuspecting passersby, it’s the arrival from Mexico, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona of the big gray birds, like those first two we spotted straining against the elements, that people come from great distances to see. The real stars of this Great Plains and Platte River party are the Sandhill cranes.
Every spring from about mid-February through early April the Platte River Valley serves as a major stopover site for hundreds of thousands of Sandhill cranes. The giant birds, among the largest in North America with their 7-foot wingspans, spend several weeks here, feeding during the day on waste grain, snails and earthworms in cornfields and wet meadows and resting in the shallow waters of the Platte River at night. This period of staging prepares them for the next leg of their journeys as they head for breeding grounds across the northern United States, Canada and Siberia.
Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet, and their history in this stretch of Nebraska is so old it even predates the existence of the Platte River itself. Fossil records show that Sandhill cranes were in what is present-day Nebraska some 9 million years ago. The Platte River? It’s been flowing for about 10,000 years.
On the way to Colorado, most of the cranes, as well as virtually all the other birds we saw, were grounded by the high winds. Huge flocks of cranes hunkered down in fields with only an occasional bird doing its extravagant courting ritual of bowing, jumping and wing flapping. A few days later, however, on the return trip to Iowa, dozens of kettles of birds could be seen soaring above fields in small flocks while on the ground thousands more strutted, preened and generally showed off for one another.
According to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, each crane stays in the area for approximately four weeks before catching the right thermal and heading for its pre-determined breeding ground. It doesn’t take them long to get where they’re going, either. Cranes can travel up to 500 miles on a good day, although 200 to 300 miles is more common.
If you’re outdoors this week and happen to see a pair of slender gray shafts streaking across the sky, look closely. You might be seeing a pair of Sandhill cranes on their way to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan or points farther north.
The spring migration is underway. Whether you’re in central Iowa, south-central Nebraska or somewhere else, enjoy it.

Todd Burras can be reached at

Things are ‘booming’ in southern Iowa

A male greater prairie chicken raises the feather tufts on his head fans his tail feathers and inflates the air sacs on the side of his throat as he begins calling for a mate. The deep booming sound he makes along with the staccato stomping of his feet is all part of the mating ritual male prairie chickens perform on booming grounds each spring kicking off mating season. Photo by Ed Rood



It’s booming time on the short-grass prairie of southern Iowa.
For prairie chickens that is.
The public is invited to the 15th-annual Prairie Chicken Day on Saturday, April 7, at the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area in Ringgold County. Prairie chicken viewing will take place from dawn until the chickens leave the booming grounds sometime around sunset. The viewing platform is located two miles west of Kellerton on Iowa Highway 2 and 1 mile south on 300th Avenue.
Prairie chickens begin their annual ritual around mid-March and continue through April. Male prairie chickens meet at the booming grounds, or leks, every morning to display, spar and fight with other males in their attempt to lure female partners.
Stephanie Shepherd, of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said there are “typically 20 to 40 birds that use the lek at Kellerton and they will display each morning regardless of the weather.”
A commercial spotting scope and a limited number of binoculars will be available for use, but it is recommended that guests bring their own binoculars or spotting scope if possible as the birds will be about 200 yards away. Other events and activities will follow at 9:30 a.m.
The Kellerton Wildlife Management Area was dedicated as Iowa’s first Bird Conservation Area in 1999 when it simultaneously became the first grassland Bird Conservation Area in the country.

Leopold: ‘Roots of the Land Ethic.’ Speaking of “booming” or “boomers,” as the case may be, Story County Conservation invites the public to the monthly O.W.L.S. (Older, Wiser, Livelier Seniors) program at noon Tuesday, April 3, at the Story County Conservation Center at McFarland Park. O.W.L.S. programs are designed for “baby boomers” or older but anyone can attend.
Steve Brower will present “Aldo Leopold: Roots of the Land Ethic,” a program featuring photos and quotes from Leopold’s childhood and early career that show the influence of his youthful discoveries.
Lunch follows Brower’s program and is available for a fee of $7.50. Call (515) 232-2516 to register.

Iowa gets a check from the USFWS. Earlier this week the U.S. Department of the Interior announced $1.1 billion in annual national funding for state wildlife agencies from revenues generated by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration (PRDJ) acts.
Iowa’s portion of the funds totaled $16,028,308, which is earmarked to support critical state conservation and outdoor recreation projects, including
$4,513,130 in Sport Fish Restoration funds and $11,515,178 in Wildlife Restoration funds.
The Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts created an excise tax paid by the hunting, shooting, boating and angling industries on firearms, bows and ammunition and sport fishing tackle, some boat engines, and small engine fuel. The funds are then allocated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For more information, visit

Stocking starts on trout streams. Local anglers who’ve gotten hooked on trout fishing as part of the DNR’s local urban trout stocking program might be interested in taking a trip to northeast Iowa soon.
Stocking on dozens of the state’s cold-water trout streams begins April 2, and by April 7 every stocked stream will have received at least one stocking of 10- to 12-inch trout. Iowa’s three trout hatcheries produce and stock about 310,000 catchable-sized rainbow or brook trout and 110,000 fingerling brown trout into hundreds of miles of northeast Iowa streams April through October.
Funding to support the stocking program comes from the sale of fishing licenses and trout fees. Anglers must have a valid fishing license and pay the trout fee to fish for or possess trout. The number of trout stamp fees has steadily grown in recent years, due in large part to the urban stocking program, such as the one that occurs twice a year at Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake in Ames.
Last year, 43,324 Iowans and 5,336 nonresidents fished for trout. The daily limit is five trout per licensed angler with a possession limit of 10.
Google “Iowa DNR trout streams map” for detailed information on where to fish.

Insect investigators. There are times when I wish our two children were younger, or, egads, older with children of their own, so I could participate in some of the fun nature tot programs offered by Story County Conservation naturalists.
One of those events will be from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 21, at McFarland Park when kids age 5 and older get to explore the world of insects by investigating the park’s pond, woods and prairie.
There’s no cost to participate, but registration is required by 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, by calling (515) 232-2516. Participants also are required to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes and should expect to get wet, dirty and muddy. Now how fun is that?!

Todd Burras can be reached at

Let’s be candid: Spring is a great time for cameras

By Todd Burras


March is a time of blooming flowers, birds in bright breeding plumage, cute baby animals and dramatic cloud formations.

All are part of the natural world’s transition from winter to spring, and all are possible focal points of a camera lens.

Photos can now be submitted to Story County Conservation for its annual photo contest, which is open to amateur photographers only.

Any photos of nature and recreational activities from spring or any other time of the year are open to submission and will be judged based on these categories: landscape (within Story County Conservation parks and areas and may include structures); flora and fungi (micro or macro); fauna (micro or macro); or connecting people and recreation.

There will be youth and adult categories — age 18 and younger and 19 and older — and each photographer may submit up to three entries.

Landscape and connecting people and recreation photos must originate from Story County while fora and fauna photos can be taken outside the county.

Spring is here and nature is burgeoning. Get outdoors with your camera or smartphone and start photographing some of its wonders.

• • •

Springtime means one thing to thousands of Iowans who enjoy dressing up in camouflage and skulking around in woodlots and forest edges: turkey hunting.

A series of dates makes up the state’s six-week spring turkey season, and some hunters are already doing some scouting to get a bead on where the hens roost at night and where the toms are strutting during the day.

This year’s season breaks down as follows:

* Youth — April 7-15

* Archery — April 16-May 20

* Season 1 — April 16-19

* Season 2 — April 20-24

* Season 3 — April 25-May1

* Season 4 — May 2-20

As winter loosens its grip and the days get longer, male turkeys will begin gobbling in preparation for the mating season. If you’re one of the some 40,000 turkey hunters in the state, now’s a good time to spend some time outdoors familiarizing yourself with the habits of toms in the areas you plan to hunt.

And don’t forget to pick up your 2018 hunting license and turkey tag in the meantime.

• • •

If you are a youth who wants to hunt this spring or are looking ahead to autumn but you haven’t completed the state’s mandatory hunter education class, one is available later this month at the Ames Izaak Walton League chapter house on Stagecoach Road.

A team of experienced and certified volunteer instructors and Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officers will lead the 13-hour course.

Class times will be from 6 to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, March 27 and 29, and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 31. In order to receive certification, a student must attend all sessions and pass the final exam.

Iowa law requires anyone born after Jan. 1, 1972, must be certified in hunter education before they are eligible to purchase an Iowa hunting license.

To register or for more information, contact Jake Strohm at (515) 290-3729.

Todd Burras can be reached at

It’s not too early to welcome in spring

By Todd Burras

Winter has passed; spring has arrived.

Not officially of course — that won’t happen for another three weeks — but in reality.

There likely will still be more snow to fall and shovel — maybe even a blizzard or two. Temperatures will rise in and out of the freezing zone, and on occasion we’ll have to drag out the mittens, scarves, heavy coats and boots. But one would have to have been locked inside with the window shades drawn not to have noticed all the spring-like signs emerging outdoors of late.

Earlier this week, there were southerly breezes that left me sweating even in short-sleeves during a long walk around Red Feather Prairie near Saylorville Lake in Polk County. The sound of trickling water as small creeks and streams opened up could be heard while the smell of decomposing leaf litter could be identified in the surrounding woods.

Then there were the birds. Oh, the magnificent sight and sound of scores and scores of different kinds of birds.

In numerous fruit trees in and around Big Creek State Park as well as along Eisenhower Avenue in north Ames near Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake, there were dozens and dozens of cedar waxwings, one of the most handsome birds ever created. In some of those trees, the waxwings shared both the limbs and the bounty of berries with robins, cardinals and even several bluebirds. Talk about a panopoly of spring-time colors — it doesn’t get much better than that this time of year.

In the woods there were the usual suspects — woodpeckers, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches and doves. In the country there were killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, snow buntings, Lapland larkspurs, American tree sparrows, red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks and even a barred owl on a telephone line. In the trees along the shoreline of the spillway below Saylorville Dam there were mature and immature bald eagles while in the open water there were Canada geese, mallards, a male common merganser (dressed in his finest breeding plumage) and even five American pelicans.

Overhead, azure skies all week have been host to thousands upon thousands of migrating Canada and snow geese chasing the boundaries of the ice line across the Midwest. Trumpeter swans are testing the parameters of open water as well.

During a trip to Colorado last week, my wife, Stephanie, even witnessed hundreds and hundreds of Sandhill cranes flooding into Nebraska near the Platte River from wintering grounds in the Southwest. It seemed a bit early, but there they were, their long bodies and awesome wings drifting over the interstate in small clouds.

Yes, spring is upon us. Get outdoors and absorb this ethereal time.

Todd Burras can be reached at

Winter affront to creatures of comfort

By Todd Burras


Unlike most people I seem to talk to these days, I don’t mind winter. I have no objection to bundling up and shoveling snow or chipping ice. I’m not opposed to needing to put on a stocking cap or wool-blended socks before I leave the house. In fact, I rather like the snow and cold temperatures. I say the snowier and colder the better.

It certainly didn’t start out that way. As a child I was never one who looked forward to a day off from school so I could go outside and build a snow fort. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about recess during the winter months, either. King of the Hill wasn’t my idea of fun. Neither were snowball fights or trying to catch a frozen foot- ball that was impossible to grab and often resulted in somebody getting a tooth knocked out or a finger jammed.

My preference back then would have been to stay inside where it was comfortable and reorganize my baseball and football cards for the umpteenth time that week or to watch reruns of “Batman” and “Gilligan’s Island.” In short, I preferred 70s and the sun’s rays to the teens and snowflakes.

I trace the evolution of my fondness for warm weather to cold and my appreciation for Warm Skin rather than sunscreen to our late Siberian husky, Kiana. Huskies, by berth right, are lovers of cold weather. They’re built to pull sleds in the Arctic, and they have the physical and mental constitution to do it with sustained vigor and gusto. It doesn’t hurt that they have built-in insulated coats that can withstand temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees below zero.

But back to Kiana. In her waning years — she lived to be more than 16 years old — we would watch her struggle through uncomfortably warm springs and autumns and fully suffer through hot, muggy summers. For her, the dog days of summer stretched from late March to early December. But when winter would come around and the temperatures finally turned cold and the snow flew, it was like a switch was flipped and the aching and lethargic senior dog would be trans- formed into an energized and rambunctious happy teen.

In a yard full of snow she would run and frolic, plowing snow with her nose and biting at snowflakes. On a walk around the block she would dig her paws into the sidewalk and pull for all she was worth. It was an amazing transformation year after year, particularly in the latter stages of her life.

It was during some of those snowy walks on the coldest of winter nights with Kiana that I, too, began to experience a bit of a transformation of my own. While walks in the spring, summer and fall were always pleasant and enjoyable, winter walks I noticed were downright invigorating. I’d leave the house after a day of work feeling tired, run down and a bit depressed, only to return awake, energized and happy.

In short, I felt alive.

Those final snowy experiences with Kiana prepared me for the past two winters I spent at our cabin in northeastern Minnesota where annual snow totals are measured in feet and temperatures routinely settle below zero, plunging frequently into the negative 20s, 30s and even 40s.

It was often on the coldest and snowiest of winter days that I would find myself on a remote, windswept frozen lake or on a forested trail miles from the nearest road, skiing or snowshoeing, thinking about Kiana, enjoying the surrounding beauty, feeling invigorated and alive in a way that I’ve discovered is only possible in the depths of a cold snowy winter.

I once heard someone say the blessing of winter is that it strips away our constant need and lust for more things and reduces life to the essentials of heat, shelter and food. That may be true, and I’d throw human connections into the mix as well.

I’m happy to once again be back in central Iowa, but I do miss the peace and solitude and simplicity that accompany deep cold.

If it’s going to be winter, it just as well snow … and snow … and snow.


Todd Burras can be reached at



A steward of the land, air, water and one another


Joyce Hornstein stands in front of a prairie planting near her home in Huxley. Hornstein is the 2017 recipient of the Olav Smedal Conservation Award. Photo by Todd Burras


By Todd Burras


My path with Joyce Hornstein first crossed on a sunny spring day some 15 years ago at Richard W. Pohl Memorial Preserve, or more commonly known as Ames High Prairie. A few years earlier I had rebooted the weekly outdoors page for the Tribune, continuing a tradition that had been established and sustained for nearly four decades by Olav Smedal, and there on a verdant plant-covered slope I stood hoping to learn a few things about prairies and, more specifically, prairie plants.

A few years earlier, I had rebooted the weekly out- doors page for the Tribune, continuing a tradition that had been established and sustained for nearly four decades by Olav Smedal, and there on a verdant plant-covered slope I stood hoping to learn a few things about prairies and, more specifically, prairie plants.

I had recently completed a master conservationist class with Story County Conservation where one evening we’d spent an hour or so with Tom Rosburg, a Drake University professor or ecology and botany, who had class participants down on all fours counting the number of different plant species we could identify based solely on the visual differences of the plants we could see.

It was one of those notable moments in my informal education in science that blew my mind. I had absolutely no idea what prairie was or how diverse, complex and important it was in recounting the history of a state in which I had lived my entire life.

It was ironic, if not a bit sobering, that I had grown upon a farm in a state that once was almost entirely Tall Grass Prairie yet I knew nothing about prairies and virtually nothing about any of the state’s other natural resources. State history wasn’t a focus of my formal or informal educational upbringing. Iowa, I grew up believing, was home to soybeans and corn. And, at that time, a few cattle and hogs. Prairies were something only a few young girls read about in Laura Ingalls Wilder novels.

It turns out Joyce Hornstein didn’t read “Little House on the Prairie” novels as a youngster. Rather, she lived a modern-day version of the story. While we both grew up on farms in rural Iowa, our upbringings, in many ways, couldn’t have been much different.

Growing up on a crop and livestock farm along the wooded North Fork of the Maquoketa River in Dubuque County, Joyce and her sisters heard lots of stories from their parents and grandparents about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

This was a generation after the arrival in the state of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the integration of various conservation practices that included building contours on hilly ground, such as the land her parents and while taking botany and land management classes that Joyce’s “mind was opened to prairie before trees.”

A deeper connection and devotion to prairies began to take root and blossom during Joyce’s career at ISU that included working in agronomy and entomology — 19 years of which were for the Extension Service.

During that time, she took a master conservationist class in Polk County and was a founding member of the Iowa Prairie Network. Eventually, she served on the Story County Conservation Board from 2005 through 2014, including chair in both 2008 and 2014, and has volunteered countless hours for both Polk and Story counties, mainly with seed harvest and trail work.

“I just love prairies,” she says. “I’ve always loved plants, and with plants the animals come with it. What could be better?”

Thinking back to that first encounter with Joyce at Pohl Preserve and sub- sequent meetings in the weeks and months that followed, it would be hard to argue with her assertion.

After all, it was with Joyce’s patience and guidance that I was first introduced to plants with imaginative names like blue wild indigo, hoary puccoon, pale spiked lobella, Virginia spiderwort, daisy fleebane, butterfly milkweed and porcupine needle grass, a sample barb of which is still pressed in a field guide I carried during those outings and as sharp as the day it was picked.

In a bit of irony or serendipity, the home Joyce and her husband, Scott, live in outside of Huxley is situated on an oak and hickory savannah, similar to the land she grew up on in northeastern Iowa where she learned the ethics about life and conservation that she lives and imparts to others.

“I think what’s important is we really have to be stewards of the land, air, water and one another,” she says. “I wish more people understood that.”


Todd Burras can be reached at


Name: Joyce Hornstein

Lives: lived in and near Huxley since 1977

Grew up:  along the North Fork of the Maquoketa River in Dubuque County.

Education:  Iowa State University Bachelor of Science degree in botany; ISU Master of Science degree in agronomy

Family: husband, Scott, and two cats

Worked: retired from ISU; worked in agronomy and entomology, including 19 years for ISU Extension

Volunteers: various conservation groups including Story and Polk County Conservation and the Iowa Prairie Network; Ballard Community Performing Arts Association Board

Hobbies:  hiking, bird watching, playing in local community band, reading

Favorite native plant species:  wow, there are so many — prairie clovers, blue flag iris, cardinal flower, oak trees

Favorite public green spaces in Iowa: Hayden Prairie State Preserve, Effigy Mounds National Monument, White Pine Hollow Wildlife Management Area in Dubuque County, Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County



Olav Smedal Conservation Award

The Olav Smedal Conservation Award is given annually in honor of the late Tribune outdoors editor by the Ames Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and Story County Conservation. The award goes to an individual or individuals who, by their actions or communications, has or have done the most to accurately present to the public of central Iowa excellence in the conservation of natural resources and outdoor pursuits while representing the highest standards of ethics and sportsmanship.

To nominate someone for the award, contact Mike Meetz at


Olav Smedal Award Recipients

1988 – Dale Brentnall
1989 – Bill Horine
1990 – Steve Lekwa
1991 – Nancy Kurrle
1992 – Cele Burnett
1993 – David Van Waus
1994 – Robert Pinneke
1995 – Jim Pease
1996 – George Patrick
1997 – Ed Powell
1998 – Mike Meetz
1999 – Linda & Hank Zaletel
2000 – Ervin Klaas
2001 – Cindy Hildebrand

2002 – Jim Dinsmore
2003 – Todd Burras
2004 – Jim Colbert
2005 – John Pohlman
2006 – Rick Dietz
2007 – Jimmie Thompson
2008 – Linda & Carl Kurtz
2009 – Gaylan & Lloyd Crim
2010 – Deb Lewis
2011 – Tom Rosburg
2012 – Marlene & Bruce Ehresman
2013 – Kerry “Pat” Schlarbaum
2014 – Mike Todd
2015 – Wolf Oesterreich
2016 – Hank Kohler