Get out while the ice is good

By Todd Burras


By noon Sunday, only a half-dozen festive red or blue ice fishing houses hugged the shoreline of the north basin of Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake. Less than 24 yours earlier, there had been scores of the portable units packed next to each other.

An estimated 400 anglers may have whetted lines at the most recent Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Urban Trout Program stocking, but there are still plenty of fish to be caught. And prizes to be won.

The DNR tagged five of the roughly 2,200 rainbow trout released at the event, and JAX Outdoors Gear, Hy-Vee and the city of Ames offered prizes for anglers who caught the special fish. Only one tagged trout was caught Saturday, and, as of Thursday, no one else had contacted Andy Long at JAX to report catching one.

“There are some tagged fish still out there waiting to be caught,” said Andy Long, assistant store manager for JAX Outdoor Gear.

As has become customary at these sorts of events, hundreds of anglers were eagerly waiting for the fish truck from the DNR’s hatchery in Manchester to arrive long before it pulled into a packed parking lot around noon. Once the truck was in place with its long tube placed over the open water where a section of ice had been cut, the fish were released and within moments happy children and adults started reeling in their catches.

“People started catching fish within a few minutes, and some even had their limits before I even started fishing,” said Jeff Kopaska, a biometrician for the fisheries bureau of the DNR.

Kopaska said the fish acted a bit differently this year than in previous stockings.

“Usually they spread out more and stay kind of shallow just below the ice,” he said. “This year, they hugged the shoreline pretty tight, so the shacks out away from the shore had little success; we never even saw a trout in my shack. The fish also seemed to go to the bottom and then would swim up to take some bait off a lure.”

The contest for returning tagged fish to JAX will go until 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11.

“It was great to see all the kids out there, that is what makes the event a success in my mind,” Long said. “I am sure there will be a lot of people out there fishing as long as the weather permits.”

Anglers who wish to fish for and possess trout must have a 2018 Iowa fishing license and trout stamp.


Ice fishing derby this weekend
The Zearing Fire Department and Story County Conservation Board are sponsoring the third-annual Dakins Lake Ice Derby from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday Feb. 10, at the lake on the north edge of Zearing. There will be prizes and contests. The cost is $10 per person, which includes lunch.

The inaugural event in 2016 drew 155 participants and raised more than $2,000 for ice rescue gear for the Zearing Fire Department and the Zearing Emergency Medical Service. Last year’s event drew 260 anglers and raised $5,000 for a new youth baseball field scoreboard in Zearing.
“It was a huge success,” said Dave Skinner, a member of the Zearing Fire Department and one of dozens of volunteers and sponsors who are involved with this year’s derby. “We look forward to a similar turnout or possibly larger this year.”

Skinner said more than 40 sponsors have provided merchandise, cash, gift cards or services to support the ice derby, and more than $2,500 in prizes will be awarded. A couple ways to win at the derby include catching one of dozens of bass, bluegills and crappies that have been tagged and released in the lake or catching the longest overall fish or the longest individual fish in each division of bluegills, bass and crappies.

Visit for rules and registration forms. On-site registration will start at 6:30 a.m. the day of the event at the lake, which is located at 70613 130th St., just north of Zearing. For more information, contact Dave Skinner at


ISU ice tourney is next weekend

There’s still time to sign up for the Iowa State University Fishing Club’s ice angling tournament Sunday, Feb. 18, at Clear Lake.

The event is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and participants will meet at the McIntosh Woods north boat ramp. Registration is open to everyone, and the cost is $65 per two-man team. Each team can weigh 10 panfish. Registration will start at 7 a.m. on the ice.

For more information, contact Blake Graves at (636) 357–4180 or


Todd Burras can be reached at


Are you ready to get counting?

By Todd Burras


Stepping into the kitchen late one morning earlier this week, I quickly stopped. This was during a weekday and I found myself in an unusual situation at an unusual time. Instead of being at work, I was home during daylight hours and it was at this moment that I nearly came face to face with a red-bellied woodpecker.

My wife, Stephanie, says the bird, with its distinctive red crown, tan breast, and black and white “zebra” markings, is a frequent visitor to the lineup of a half-dozen tube, tray and suet feeders that hang from the soffit just beyond the kitchen windows. It feeds on an assortment of shelled peanuts, hulled sunflower seeds, suet and even dried mealworms we put out for our backyard visitors. On this particular occasion, it was stuffing its crop with sunflower chips before suddenly turning and flying off to a neighbor’s ash tree in an adjoining yard.

I was left leaning over the sink scanning the ground, hedge, pin oak and numerous conifers in our backyard for signs of other birds. Standing in front of the kitchen sink, is, after all, the best place in the house to view the comings and goings of birds in our backyard, and it’s the very spot we’ll likely spend a few hours two weekends from now when we participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The global event will be Friday, Feb. 16 to Monday, Feb. 19, and marks the 21st year that everyone, regardless of their birding acumen, is invited to become a citizen scientist by counting birds they see in their backyards, parks or other areas they choose. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, with Bird Studies Canada and many international partners organize the study, which helps scientists better define bird ranges, populations, migration pathways and habitat needs.

You can be among the thousands of beginner to expert birdwatchers from around the world who will count birds and add them to a database, thereby creating a snapshot of bird activity across the globe. Last year, more than 214,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

Participants can spend as little as 15 minutes on one day or count for as long as they like each day of the event. For more information or to download a regional checklist, visit Participants can also pick up a checklist and get information by calling the Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Store in Ames at (515) 956-3145 or stopping at the store at 213 Duff Ave. Wild Birds Unlimited is a major sponsor of the count.

It’s time to get ready to get counting.


  • ••


It got cold again just in time.

For ice anglers that is.

A week after a warming trend made conditions along the shore of the north basin of Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake unsafe for ice anglers, cold temperatures returned and refroze the edges. The result is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ trout stocking of the lake will take place at noon Saturday, Feb. 3, as previously planned.

The DNR plans to release around 2,100 hatchery-raised rainbow trout as part of the DNR’s Urban Trout Program.

“We have around 11.5 inches of ice out around the canoe launch,” Ben Dodd, a fisheries biologist for the DNR said earlier this week. “We should have at least a foot of ice by Saturday.”

To fish for trout at Ada Hayden, anglers need a valid 2018 fishing license and a trout stamp. The daily limit is five trout per licensed angler with a possession limit of 10. Children age 15 or younger can fish for trout with a properly licensed adult, but they must limit their catch to one daily limit. The child can purchase a trout fee, which will allow them to catch their own limit.

Dodd said the DNR plans to tag a few fish that if caught will provide the lucky anglers with prizes from JAX Outdoor Gear.


Todd Burras can be reached at

2017 Top 10 most frequently reported species:

While a global event, the majority of checklists submitted to the Great Backyard Bird Count site are from counters in North America, Here’s a list of the most frequently reported species during the 2017 count based on the number checklists on which each appeared:

  1. Northern Cardinal
  2. American Crow
  3. Mourning Dove”
  4. Dark-eyed Junco
  5. Downy Woodpecker
  6. Blue Jay
  7. Black-capped Chickadee
  8. House Finch
  9. House Sparrow
  10. White-breasted Nuthatch

Source: Great Backyard Bird Count


If you dig pollinator gardens, Ames teacher, students can help

Ames High science teacher Mike Todd and dozens of students will be involved in hosting the Iowa Prairie Network Winter Seminar on Saturday, Jan. 27, at the high school. Photo by Todd Burras

By Todd Burras


Interested in establishing a pollinator garden in your yard but don’t know where to start?

Let some Ames High students be your guides.

Dozens of biology students at Ames High who are involved with community-based Environmental Impact Projects and many others who are members of the Ames High Garden Club are working with professionals to design pollinator gardens this spring for Ames residents who sign up online.

Ames High science teacher Mike Todd said the students are collaborating with design professionals and native plant experts to help residents establish and maintain the gardens, which are free.

Many of the students involved will be working at this weekend’s Iowa Prairie Network Winter Seminar Saturday, Jan. 27, at Ames High School, 1921 Ames High Drive. The free event is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and a slate of guest speakers, including Carl Kurtz, John Pearson, Lee Burras, Loren Lown and Mike Todd, will present workshops covering a wide variety of topics related to prairies.

To learn more about the seminar and the pollinator garden project, Todd provided answers to a few questions.

  • What’s the importance of Ames High Prairie to the network and to the mission of the Iowa Prairie Network?

The IPN works to preserve our natural heritage. The IPN Winter Seminar helps to educate and inspire people to get involved with these efforts, so its nice to have the Ames High Prairie on site for the seminar. Two years ago there was a winter hike in the morning to help people understand what happens to prairies and the plants in winter. Many people involved with the IPN have done work at the Ames High Prairie and they have been excited for us to host the annual event.

  • How are Ames High students involved with this event?

Ames High students are involved in the planning, promoting and organizing of the IPN Winter Seminar. A group attended the planning meeting, created a promotional card and over 100 students will help out with all aspects of the event on Saturday including presenting during one of the sessions.

  • Does the seeming rise of awareness in the public conscience of the importance of pollinators translate into an increasing interest/awareness of the importance of prairie?

I’m not sure, but it does allow our students an opportunity to educate the public about how to positively impact pollinators in our community through the incorporation of native plants that are host plants for 90 percent of insects.

  • In a nutshell what does the pollinator garden include that students are offering to help residents create?

Our students will be once again growing 10,000 native plants in our greenhouse and working with professionals to design and plant around 75 pollinator gardens throughout Ames. The pollinator gardens are around 30 square feet — some larger, some smaller — and contain all Iowa native plants. The public signs up on our link, then later this winter and spring a student group will contact them to set up a meeting at the site they would like a pollinator garden planted. The students collect information about the site — shade, moisture, soil sample, etc., — and the client’s preferences.

They also will be educating their clients about native plants and what to expect from the garden over the next three years.  Then the students work with design professionals and native plant experts to develop an initial design plan. They have another meeting with their client to get their feedback about the design and do some more education about the maintenance of the garden. Then the students finalize the design.

In April and May, the students prepare the site for planting, educate the client about Iowa One Call, etc. Then in the middle of May, the students plant the pollinator garden. Next year’s students will likely visit to get feedback about the first growing season and possibly again in future years.

For more information, contact Mike Todd at


Todd Burras can be reached at

Free pollinator gardens

If Ames residents are interested in learning more about working with Ames High students in creating a pollinator garden, they can attend the Iowa Prairie Network Winter Seminar this weekend and/or sign up to get a free pollinator garden using the following link:





Ames High to host prairie seminar

By Todd Burras


The big bluestem, compass plants, oxeye daisies and butterfly bushes may be buried under the snow, but a prairie in full bloom will be on the minds of attendees at the annual Iowa Prairie Network seminar Saturday, Jan. 27, at Ames High School, 1921 Ames High Drive.

The event is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and a slate of guest speakers, including Carl Kurtz, John Pearson, Lee Burras, Loren Lown and Mike Todd, will present workshops covering the following topics: a Smartphone app for identification and inventory of prairie plants; understanding prairies and native plants; evaluating pollinator habitat; building soil with prairie; and invasive species control.

The event is free and open to the public, and there will be a silent auction that will provide funds to help manage a local prairie remnant that is in need of help.

For more information, contact Mike Todd at

Take a winter hike

If the cold weather in the first half of January kept you locked inside and afraid to go outside, maybe this weekend’s weather will warm you to the idea of getting outside for a walk or a hike.

The Outdoor Alliance of Story County has a schedule of three more winter hikes that are free and open to the public. All three hikes start at 1:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Here’s the remaining schedule for this winter:

  • Jan. 25 – Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s Jordan Wildlife Area at 56091 265th St., south of Ames. To get there, take South Duff Avenue south out of Ames and then turn east on 265th Street and travel 1.75 miles. All hikes end with a winter “picnic” of a light array of whatever the hikers brought to share.
  • Feb. 1 — Story County’s Heart of Iowa Trail. The trailhead is at the Cambridge City Park, Water and Third Streets (under the water tower). If you want a ride, meet others at 12:50 p.m. for departure from the old Kmart store on South Duff Avenue and South 16th Street. Meet in the southeast corner of the parking area.
  • Feb. 8 — Story County Conservation’s Sleepy Hollow Access Sleepy Hollow, 646 W. Riverside Road, just north of Ames off U.S. Highway 69 near Ada Hayden Heritage Park. Meet at the parking lot on the southwest side of the bridge over the South Skunk River.

For more information, contact Greg Vitale at (732) 328-0643 or visit

Iowans on Everest

Andy Anderson, a Boone native, will present a program about his successful summit of Mount Everest at 7 pm. Tuesday, Feb. 6, at the CPMI Event Center, at 2321 N Loop Drive, off Airport Road in Ames.

In May 2017, Anderson and his cousin John completed their 52-day trek and became the first Iowans to summit the mountain via the lesser-climbed northeast ridge in China.

Anderson will show a slide presentation and discuss all aspects of his historic ascent: his progression as a climber starting out in central Iowa; the physical and mental challenges he faced on Everest; and the life lessons he learned along the way.

For those unable to attend, the event will be live-streamed on JAX Outdoor Gear’s Facebook page,

Whitetail harvest up

The number of deer killed by hunters during Iowa’s 2017-18 whitetail season increased by nearly 4 percent over 2016-17, according to data released by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources earlier this week.

The DNR says hunters reported killing 105,544 deer, an increase of 4,100 deer from the previous year. Most deer were harvested during the shotgun seasons, including 26,546 during the first season and 19,921 in the second season.

Bow hunters killed 19,797 whitetails while landowners and tenants reported harvesting 7,376 antlerless deer and 3,785 antlered deer during the shotgun seasons and 1,445 antlerless deer and 1,246 antlered deer during the bow season.

Iowa’s deer seasons closed on Jan. 10.

Ice fishing derby, tourney
The Zearing Fire Department and Story County Conservation Board are sponsoring the third-annual Dakins Lake Ice Derby from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday Feb. 10, at the lake on the north edge of Zearing. There will be prizes and contests. The cost is $10 per person, which includes lunch. Visit for rules and registration forms. Registration will start at 6:30 a.m. the day of the event. For more information, contact Dave Skinner at

The Iowa State University Fishing Club will host a tournament from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Clear Lake. Participants will meet at the McIntosh Woods north boat ramp. Registration is open to everyone, and the cost is $65 per two-man team. Each team can weigh 10 panfish. Registration will start at 7 a.m. on the ice. For more information, contact Blake Graves at (636) 357–4180 or


Todd Burras can be reached at


Not all was quiet on this New Year’s Day


By Todd Burras


CHISHOLM, MINN. – What does one do to christen a new year when it’s 15 degrees below zero and the ground is covered with 6 inches of snow?

If you’re Bill Tefft and Susan Meisner, you get up early and drive mile after mile in town and the country, stopping frequently and getting out occasionally to take a better look or tromp through the snow in search of a silhouette that vanished into the woods.

It may have been New Year’s Day but this outing was part of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.

Here’s how it works.

Each year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, participants are organized into groups that count birds within 15-mile diameter circles in specific areas all across North America and other parts of the world. In some counts, birdwatchers only count the number of different species they see. However, with the CBC, they record individual birds, as well.

Initially organized in 1900 as an alternative to the old “side hunt” — in which teams of Christmas revelers would gather and compete to see which team could shoot the largest number of birds and other animals — a couple dozen people in several northeastern states took notebooks and went out to several sites to count birds.

Nearly 120 years later, the CBC has become the largest and longest-running citizen science survey in the world with tens of thousands of people counting millions of birds during the three-week period. The findings are added to a massive database that helps professional researchers document and analyze changes in bird populations. When combined with breeding bird surveys, the CBC data provide, among other insights, an early warning as to when a species begins to decline.

“By conducting Christmas Bird Counts we explore and learn about the habits of our winter birds, and how they’re faring,” said Tefft, a naturalist who retired a few years ago from a teaching career at Vermilion Community College in Ely.

On this particular count, one of five or six Tefft was participating in this year, he and Meisner started early in the morning in Hibbing, Minn., before moving onto Chisholm, a neighboring city. It’s there where I met up with them, grabbing a spot in the backseat and slouching down in order to gain a better view.

We started out driving up and down side streets, looking for birdfeeders or habitat, such as crabapple trees, that might draw birds. Slowly our list grew both in number of species identified as well as in the number of birds we counted. All were birds one would expect to see in that part of the world in winter: black-capped chickadees, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, blue jays, common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, European starlings, rock pigeons, American crows and common ravens.

It wasn’t until after a couple hours passed as we worked our way into the country and the edge of the circle, in which we were counting, that things got a little more interesting. After spotting a ruffed grouse hunkered in a copse of a jackpine forest edge and adding it to the list, Bill stopped the vehicle and got out. He wanted to try to lure in a grey jay to add to our findings and began hooting like a barred owl, a tactic that sometimes attracts curious birds.

Bill’s convincing mimic would have fooled me but it didn’t any of the birds. We got back in the car, drove a ways and tried again. It was on the third try that Bill caught a glimpse of a bird dipping and diving across the road and disappearing into the woods.

“And, by the shape of it, I’m thinking it might be a black-backed woodpecker,” he said. “It’s certainly the perfect habitat for them.”

Bill whipped out his cell phone and within seconds was playing a sound recording of a black-backed woodpecker.

The three of us strained to listen, and then Susan and I both looked at one another.

“Over there,” she said.

With that, Susan plunged into the ditch and started in pursuit.

“I guess we’re going in,” Bill said, and we both dove into the ditch, pausing a couple times to replay the sound recording and track the bird’s location.

As we advanced through the forest, the volume of the woodpecker’s “chek, chek, chek” increased.

“Look for falling snow off the branches,” Susan said.

Sure enough, a moment later, with snow falling off a limb, I noticed a dark shape moving around the trunk of a craggy jackpine.

“A female black-backed woodpecker,” Bill said. “And not a three-toed woodpecker, which is similar.”

We celebrated the “uncommon find” as we continued the count and did once again after spotting a barred owl perched high in a white pine. In all, the daily count reached 18 species. A good number for the area, Bill assured us.

But the count to the three of us was more than just about spending time looking for birds, something we all deeply enjoyed.

“It’s also fun for me because I participate in a number of these counts in the area each winter so I end up meeting and talking to people that I normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to spend an entire day with,” Bill said.

Whether you’re driving around an old mining town on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota or hiking the canyons and ridges at Ledges State Park in central Iowa, there’s bound to be a Christmas Bird Count in your area. Next winter, you might want to take part in one. I certainly plan to.


Todd Burras can be reached at



Ice conditions improving for planned trout stocking

By Todd Burras


The recent deep-freeze temperatures have surely been welcomed by at least one group of Mid-Iowans: ice anglers.

Two weeks of cold weather have been ideal for making ice on local bodies of water, including Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake in Ames, where the Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently announced it will again restock trout this winter.

The DNR plans to release around 2,100 hatchery-raised rainbow trout at noon Saturday, Feb. 3, at the north end of the lake in Ames. The event is part of the DNR’s Urban Trout Program.

“Obviously this is pending good ice conditions,” said Ben Dodd, a DNR fisheries biologist.

Dodd said that as of mid-week the lake had between 6 and 7 inches of ice on it.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed that ice-building conditions continue,” he said.

The annual winter event has become a hit with local anglers. Dodd said if conditions are right, he expects between 300 and 400 people to show up to fish the day of the release.

To add a little incentive and fun, Dodd said the DNR plans to tag a few fish that if caught will provide the lucky anglers with prizes from JAX Outdoor Gear.

To fish for trout at Ada Hayden, anglers need a valid 2018 fishing license and a trout stamp. The daily limit is five trout per licensed angler with a possession limit of 10. Children age 15 or younger can fish for trout with a properly licensed adult, but they must limit their catch to one daily limit. The child can purchase a trout fee, which will allow them to catch their own limit.


Todd Burras can be reached at


Hang on to the past but keep moving ahead

By Todd Burras


Traditions are some of the many fun things about the winter holidays. Our family for many years has made it a priority to get out on the afternoon of Christmas Day to go for a hike, ski or snowshoe. We take hot chocolate and a bag of birdseed, leaving some along the way for birds, squirrels and any other creatures that might come along.

It’s part of an old Scandinavian tradition of feeding the birds on Christmas morning as a way of ensuring good luck in the coming New Year. Some people sprinkle a little seed on the front step while others leave it in little piles in the woods. We do both.

Late in the afternoon this past Monday the four of us bundled up and drove out to McFarland Park with a friend, who also happens to be Norwegian (don’t we all need any extra luck we can possibly muster in the coming year?). It was fun to stroll around the lake and scatter a little seed as we went, even if the woods were relatively quiet and the cold air made our faces turn numb.

The real highlight (besides the hot chocolate after the hike), however, took place before we even got to the park when we saw a flock of at least 10 turkeys mingling with three or four deer while feeding in a ditch less than a fourth of a mile from the McFarland parking lot.

A half century ago or so it would have been a rare occasion for an Iowan to see either a white-tailed deer or an Eastern turkey. Now, though, thanks to the efforts of state biologists, conservation organizations, hunters and many landowners and other residents who care about providing habitat for wildlife, both species are flourishing, as are some other native creatures that have made strong comebacks in recent years, including trumpeter swans, peregrine falcons, ospreys, otters and bobcats, among others.

Even barn owls, which landed on Iowa’s endangered species list in 1977 due to their declining numbers, are showing signs of recovery. Cold weather and a loss of grasslands habitat likely led to the species’ population crash that by 1980 resulted in biologists being able to locate only one barn owl nest in the entire state.
But this year staff for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources found 38 nests in 26 counties, marking the fourth consecutive year they’ve increased their nesting numbers in the state, according to Bruce Ehresman, a wildlife diversity bird biologist for the DNR. Of the 38 nests counted, 26 active nests produced 71 barn owls that fledged.

Ehresman attributes the increase in barn owl numbers to milder winter temperatures statewide, grassland conservation programs and an increase in the number of barn owl nesting boxes mounted on poles that the DNR has strategically placed around the state. If the trend continues, Ehresman is optimistic barn owls could eventually be upgraded from endangered to threatened on the state species list.

It takes more than tradition and a little luck to help wildlife populations recover. Vision, teamwork, money and a ton of hard work are what’s needed and required. As we take time during the holidays to relax, reflect and refuel, let’s all re-commit to building on old traditions and starting new ones in the areas of conservation, outdoors recreation, natural resource management and personal wellness that comes from spending time with others in nature.

Happy New Year.


Todd Burras can be reached at

Bird-feeding action should heat up now that it’s cooled down

By Todd Burras


If the Arctic weather system settling into the region is an indication of what’s to come now that winter is here, then look for the birds in your neighborhood to start showing up at feeders more regularly.

Until the blustery temperatures Mid-Iowans experienced yesterday – coincidentally the official start of winter — it had been an extraordinarily mild, even warm, autumn. With no snow cover and access to plenty of natural food sources, the majority of backyard birds have had an easy time finding enough seeds, nuts and even some insects to keep them well fed without the help of humans.

That’s true nearly all the time. As well-intentioned as many of us are in putting out all sorts of bird food, most birds don’t need the help. Studies show birds that frequent backyard feeders still forage and find the majority of the food they consume in nature. No doubt in severe or prolonged weather events birds that can access feeders have a better chance of survival, but, let’s face it, humans aren’t saving many birds by feeding them. The primary reason we feed birds is for the enjoyment they bring us. It’s just plain fun and makes us feel good.

That said, birds are opportunists, and if they can limit the amount of energy they expend by taking advantage of the generous offerings of humans, they’ll do it, particularly in colder and inclement weather. Why travel long distances in the cold to go hunting for something to eat when dinner has already been delivered to the doorstep of your cozy home?

Besides filling your feeders now that winter weather is setting in, a perhaps more important thing you can provide your backyard birds with to help them get through the next few months is water. As mentioned, under normal conditions backyard birds don’t have too much trouble finding natural food throughout the year. Water, on the hand, can be more difficult.

During a prolonged dry stretch like we’re currently experiencing or in the throes of a cold winter, finding water can be very challenging for backyard birds that have small ranges. But birds need water to survive, not only for drinking purposes by also in order to clean themselves as a way of keeping their feathers in tip-top shape.

When it comes to birds, and wildlife in general, one of the most overlooked and underrated features to any backyard landscape is a consistent water source. If you want more birds, bees and butterflies, offer them water. This time of year, consider a heated birdbath or a get a small electric heater to add to an existing water tray or small fountain. Your existing birds will love it, and you’ll attract even more birds to your backyard in the process.

One of the best things we did for the birds when we moved to our present home some nine years ago wasn’t intentionally done for them. Instead, we put up a 4-foot wooden fence around our backyard to give our Siberian husky at the time some freedom to run. There already was a hedge around the yard so we had the fence installed on the perimeter of the bushes. Unwittingly in doing so, we added an extra measure of protection from the wind for any feathered backyard visitor. In particular, cardinals and juncos, both natural ground feeders, seem to value the combination of fence and shrubs, both as protection from potential predators and as a place to hunker down when the winter wind blows.

You don’t need to put up an expensive fence or even plant an entire hedge around your yard in order to help protect the birds, though. One simple and inexpensive feature you can add to your yard — provided you have larger trees nearby that drop twigs and small limbs – is a brush pile. Start with denser chunks of wood at the bottom and then add longer and thinner limbs as you go. You can even mix leaves, raspberry canes, garden plant stems and just about any other woody material you find laying around the yard. Such piles provide birds – and other small creatures – with shelter from wind, cold temperatures and even predators.

While it’s too late now to do any planting this season, winter is a good time to start researching what trees, shrubs or berries you might want to add to your landscape this coming spring that will provide natural food and shelter for future generations of birds and other wildlife.

The unseasonably nice autumn weather in late-November, for example, allowed me the chance to plant a pair of winterberry shrubs in a sunny protected spot of our backyard. Assuming the spindly and fragile-looking bushes survive, it will be several years before they grow into the ornamental beauties they promise to be. In the meantime, I’ll just keep dreaming of the cold wintery day sometime in the future that a wandering flock of cedar waxwings shows up in our yard in order to dine on huge clusters of bright red berries.

When that day occurs, it will be a different take on backyard bird feeding that I’ll be certain to write about, and, hopefully, share with you.


Todd Burras can be reached at

This Hill was a mountain of a man

Roger Hill, of Roland, was a well-known wildlife photographer whose photos appeared in countless national magazines and publications. He took this self-photo while photographing wild sheep in the Desert Southwest. Hill, 73, died unexpectedly on Nov. 28. A

By Todd Burras


In August 2011, I sat down with a pen and legal pad for what I hoped would be a short interview with Roger Hill for a story I wanted to write about his membership in the Grand Slam Club, an exclusive group of hunters who have killed all of North America’s four major sheep species. What ensued was a more than 3-hour conversation in which Roger discussed how he had started out his quest with a gun in one hand but ended it with a camera in the other.

The interview was punctuated by a long slideshow on a laptop computer that included a sampling of the tens of thousands of photos Hill had shot of wild sheep on trips to Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and southwestern United States.

My head was spinning with details and facts and stories and stunning images by the time he left The Tribune office, and it left me wondering how I would ever sift through it all and come up with a story of suitable length for a newspaper.

Roger Hill, I realized that day, was a man who had been living the sort of adventurous life that most outdoors-loving people only dream about. Or read about. Or write books about.

It was a week later at The Tribune when I got a call from the front desk that there was someone there who wanted to see me. A couple minutes later I walked out front
to see Roger – all 6 feet, 6 inches of him — standing just inside the front door holding up two giant grocery sacks.

“I dug up some hills today and had too many for my wife and me to eat so I put a bunch in the sack along with a few onions and cucumbers and summer squash if you would like. Sorry I didn’t have time to clean the dirt off them.”

Thus began my relation- ship with Roger Hill, which would see him calling or stopping by the Tribune office or my house sporadically for the next six years, sometimes just to talk about something he’d seen or photographed while at other times to drop off fresh produce or discs full of his incomprehensibly spectacular wildlife photos that he thought I might just enjoy looking at, which of course I did.

While I knew Roger from a short distance, many others, such as Ed Rood, an exceptional photographer in his own right, knew him intimately, having spent countless hours and miles together traveling back roads, slogging across rough terrain and taking photo- graphs throughout Story County, Mid-Iowa, the Midwest and beyond.

When Ed sent me a copy of a column he wrote about Roger shortly after his unexpected death on Nov. 28, I asked if I could reprint it in The Tribune. Where six years earlier I had struggled mightily to condense a 3-hour inter- view into a coherent news story, Ed had quickly and gracefully compressed four decades worth of friendship into a beautiful eulogy that captures the spirit of Roger Hill’s life and legacy.

With Ed’s permission on this sad occasion, I gladly share his tribute to his long- time friend.


Farewell to one of conservation’s ‘tall trees’


By Ed Rood
Special to The Tribune


On a warm September morning a couple of years ago I was enjoying coffee with friends when my cell phone rang. Noticing who was calling I switched to speaker and set it on the table.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“I’m getting a little bored so I thought I’d give you a call,” the caller replied, “I’m about 30 feet from a sow grizzly and her two cubs. They’re just napping. Not much to photograph. Oops, I think they’re starting to stir . . . better go.”

My coffee companions rolled their eyes. One of them even laughed and added, “Yah, right.”

It was clear they didn’t know who had been on the phone. If they did they would have realized he had no need to embellish. It was just another morning in Roger Hill’s life.

I’m sorry to report that Roger left this world Nov. 28. No more will I receive such phone calls because no one I know will be calling while they are within a few feet of grizzly bears. There was only one Roger Hill.

Roger became a big part of my life back in the mid-1980s. He contacted me and asked if I might give him some advice on photographing sporting events. He added that he already did some outdoor photography. That came as no surprise. I knew of Roger and his brother Jerry and their outstanding wildlife photography. Truth was, I learned much more from Roger than he ever did from me.

From that time on Roger and I photographed together hundreds if not thousands of times. He was the ultimate wildlife photographer because he seemed to know what animals were going to do before they did.

During his early years Roger had been a hunter. He had harvested many animals ranging from squirrels to coyotes to moose to sheep to bears.

By the time I met Roger he had hung up his guns and purchased high-end cameras and lenses. He once told me that he no longer had the desire to hunt – except with a camera.

That hunting and tracking expertise is what made him the great photographer he became. His photographs have appeared in all the major outdoor magazines. His donated photographs have meant untold income for such organizations as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Pheasant Forever, Ducks Unlimited and many other groups.

Following Roger was no easy job. He went where the animals were and he rarely slowed down. If you wanted to get similar photos you’d better be in shape. Many were the times I tried to keep up with him as he climbed mountainsides in pursuit of wild sheep and goats. I still remember watching his long legs ever climbing like a daddy longlegs.

Although Roger had countless photos of huge whitetail bucks, eye-popping rooster pheasants, strutting wild turkeys and cute fox, his true love was the beasts that inhabit such places as Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and the Yukon. After retirement Roger would visit them at least once a year. There he would live with the creatures and capture them with his camera. It is with that in mind that I will share one more story.

Without a firearm Roger relied on pepper spray for protection from the more powerful animals. One recent fall he came across a monster bull elk that had Roger in his sights. He made a pass at him with his huge antlers. Roger realized that if he sprayed the charging animal in the eyes he would be blinded and then would wonder off into the woods to die. So he sprayed him in the chest and let the pepper drift up to his nostrils. It worked. The elk quickly departed.

Yes, that was Roger Hill. Who else would be so concerned over the welfare of a charging animal, hell bent on gauging him, than Roger? As recently retired Iowa Department of Natural Resources technician Pat Schlarbaum put it: “Roger Hill is a very tall and broad burr oak tree in conservation matters. His passing is a great, great loss, yet his inspiration is greater.”

  • ••

Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times and an award-winning outdoors photographer and columnist. His work has appeared in local newspapers for more than five decades.


Chasing the leaves of autumn into winter



It felt like a race against time standing among the swirling oak, sycamore and maple leaves that would blow toward Minnesota one moment and Missouri the next.

This was Monday afternoon and the temperature was still unseasonably warm with the thermometer pushing the mercury toward the upper 60s. But with dark foreboding storm clouds massing in the southwest and northeast and the constantly shifting wind increasing in intensity, the fast-approaching front promised dramatically different temperatures in tow.

If I wanted to get this year’s yard work done while still wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I’d better hurry. Mother Nature wasn’t going to wait for me. Autumn was trying to make a quick getaway and winter was in hot, nay cold, pursuit.

The two main objectives on this rare day at home was to mulch as many of the omnipresent leaves as possible and to spread a huge pile of wood chips left in the yard by arborists who had several days earlier pruned the two venerable pin oak trees that dominate our front and back yards. No doubt the shovel, rake and lawnmower would be up to the task; the pressing question was whether my arms and back could meet the challenge with equal determination.

When it comes to yard work, my muscles are dreadfully out of shape, and Father Time isn’t the sole reason and excuse for the lack of inactivity. As many of you know, I recently returned from northern Minnesota where I had spent the past two years, including three autumns, living in our cabin in the Superior National Forest. Raking leaves in the forest is akin to shoveling snow in the Arctic. People just don’t do it.

Despite lingering symptoms from a cold and a sore hand from recent carpal tunnel surgery, I jumped into the project with all the zeal I could muster. Wood chips flew and a small corner of the pile shrunk as the tools attacked the mountain of chips, spreading them over the hosta and bleeding heart garden that encircles the base of one of the oaks.

Within a few minutes, I was gassed.

Bent over and gasping for breath I realized I needed a change of strategy if I wasn’t going to end up as a cardio patient in the emergency room at Mary Greeley Medical Center. The new plan: switch back and forth between spreading the chips and mulching the leaves in our yard with the lawnmower.

The latter job sounded relatively easy on the surface. Take off the grass catcher bag and the side discharge cover of the mower and speed across the lawn chopping the leaves as I went. Simple.

I’ve never been one who feels compelled to rake and bag leaves. Romantic and nostalgic images captured on canvas with paint by the late outdoors master artist Terry Redlin aside, I’ve always been more utilitarian in my approach to dealing with leaves. I view them as an asset rather than a liability, something to appreciate rather than to curse and view as a bane at the top of the annual autumn chore list.

Each year some of the leaves end up in each of our three compost bins where they eventually break down into rich organic matter that’s added to the flower and vegetable gardens. The rest get shredded by the lawnmower blade and left on the lawn where the mulched leaf litter adds nutrients to the soil, supports the grass by helping the ground retain moisture and by providing food for microbes and worms, which help aerate the soil.

It all seemed good in theory. That is until pausing to take in the scene I had to come to terms with the fact that the wind was increasing even more and the leaves were refusing to stay in one spot for more than an instant.

I started the mower with the intent of making nice neat strips around our yard but quickly abandoned the idea in favor of zigzagging back and forth in hot pursuit of the seemingly wanton leaves as they migrated from our yard to one of our neighbors’ and then back again.

What normally would take 15 to 20 minutes to mow our front and back yards turned into an hour and then more as the old leaves were joined by new ones falling from the trees overhead. To onlookers, I must have looked like a deranged squirrel trying to remember where it had cached a storehouse of acorns — here, there, everywhere.

In the end, though, I finally got the wood chips spread and a majority of the leaves mulched with only back, neck, shoulder and arm aches to suffer for my trouble. Whether any of the neighbors or anyone driving by saw me and thought I had gone completely off the deep end is a verdict that has yet to be rendered and perhaps another story for a different day.