Outdoors Notebook For Sept. 22, 2017

Iowa waterfowlers who didn’t participate in the early teal-only season will get there first shot of the year at ducks and geese during the course of the next three weekends.

The state is divided into three zones that will open on consecutive weekends, starting Saturday, Sept. 23, when the north zone opens. The south zone opens on Sept. 30, followed by the Missouri River zone on Oct. 7.

Wetland conditions vary significantly across the state so duck hunters should know in advance if there are adequate water levels at their favorite hunting spots.

The Iowa DNR has a wetland conditions survey and weekly migration report online at www.iowadnr.gov/hunting.

The daily bag for ducks is six. A couple changes this season include the black duck bag limit was been increased to two, while the pintail bag limit has decreased to one

The daily bag limit for Canada geese is two. On Nov.1, the daily bag limit increases to three.

More information and season dates and bag limits is available in the 2017-18 Iowa Hunting, Trapping and Migratory Game Bird Regulations and online at www.iowadnr.gov/hunting.


Help harvest prairie seed

If you’re looking for a fun reason to get outside to enjoy the fall weather and to even catch a bit of the fall butterfly migration, Story County Conservation could use your help.

Conservation staff will be collecting seed at Doolittle Prairie on three different occasions in the next two weeks, and they could use some volunteers. Experience is not necessary and staff will show volunteers where, how and what species of prairie flowers from which to collect the seeds.

The first seed collection will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, at Doolittle Prairie, 14249 560th Ave., south of Story City.

Registration is requested so staff know how many supplies and refreshments will be needed. Call (515) 232-2516 to sign up.


Fall Festival is Oct. 1

Another opportunity to get out and enjoy the beginning of autumn will be the Partners Fall Festival. The annual free event will be from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, at McFarland Park, and will feature the traditional and modern blues music of Redz Bluez.

There will be a hayrack ride around the park, nature activities for kids, food vending options from the Mucky Duck Pub, and booths and displays from, among others, the Iowa Purple Martin Organization, Ames Smart Watersheds and Conservation Corps of Iowa.


‘Wildlife Calls! 2017’

Wildlife lovers might want to share an evening with a few wild creatures and some of the people who care for them.

The Iowa Wildlife Center’s “Wildlife Calls! 2017” fundraising event will be from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines. The IWC is nonprofit organization that provides professional rehabilitation services for native wildlife.

IWC staff, board members and volunteers will be on hand to share stories about some of the animals they’ve helped in recent years while building a wildlife rehabilitation clinic and education center near Ledges State Park in Boone County.

There will be guest speakers, videos, a silent and live auctions, appetizers, a cash bar and door prizes. The cost is $60 in advance or $65 at the door. All proceeds will benefit the IWC.

For tickets, call Gina McAndrews at (515) 635-5760 or visit www.iowawildlifecenter.org.


Clean those birdfeeders

The fall 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 fall birdfeeder cleaning fundraiser will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, 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, Oct. 4, through noon, Saturday, Oct. 7. Cleaned feeders can be picked up late Saturday afternoon or between noon and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8.

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


Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

This lady paints a pretty picture of the fall migration

A painted lady butterfly explores the flowers of some stonecrop sedum earlier this week. Butterflies are migrating through the state in large numbers in recent days. Photo by Todd Burras

When it comes to the plight of North American pollinators, monarch butterflies and honeybees steal most of the headlines. And with good reason.

Most people likely have some childhood connection with monarchs, and seemingly everyone knows the sweet taste of honey comes from honeybees. As Steve Lekwa recently wrote, monarch butterflies and honeybees are “the poster children for pollinators.”
Still, as has been well documented here and throughout the media in recent years, countless species of insects, birds and mammals – not just honeybees and monarchs — play essential roles in the pollination of the plants that provide a majority of the food we consume.

Whether it’s bats, flies, hummingbirds, the scores of species of butterflies this continent, alone, is home to, or the thousands of species of moths that most of us can’t begin to identify more than a couple of and which we likely take for granted, many creatures, including – get this – lemurs, geckos and honey opossums – are responsible, in part, for the production of human food.

I’ve been thinking about one of those less high-profile pollinators this week as I’ve come back to central Iowa. In one of the gardens in our backyard, the stonecrop sedum I planted a few years ago has been host to a steady parade of painted lady butterflies. These pretty orange, black, white, brown and pink butterflies are members of the brushfoot family and considered the most cosmopolitan of all butterflies, being found not only in North America, but also South America, Asia, India, Europe and Africa.

Migrating painted ladies have been collecting nectar and sharing the tiny pink flowers of the sedum with wild bumbles bees, Steph’s honeybees and numerous other insects. In your own flower gardens or perhaps on a walk around Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames, you’ve maybe seen some 2-inch painted ladies with the jagged wing margins. Apparently it’s been a good week for them.

Last Saturday, the Friends of Ada Hayden Heritage Park daily photo update featured a pair of photos of painted ladies by Wolf Oesterreich. Along with the beautiful images, Wolf included a few notes indicating the number of painted ladies at the park had “exploded these past two days.”

On Sept. 4, Wolf counted two painted ladies during his daily rounds in the park. A day later, the number was 223-plus. By Sept. 9, the day I first noticed the painted ladies in our backyard, he had counted at least 592.

“The actual number of these butterflies could easily be double, if not triple, of what I recorded,” he wrote.

The little sanctuary in our backyard couldn’t begin to support numbers like that, but I did count at least two-dozen at one time on Sunday. As the week has progressed, they’ve been joined by a few monarchs, as both species make their way to the southwest United States and Mexico.

Whether its painted ladies, monarchs, hummingbirds, warblers, green-winged teal or any other number of species, the fall migration for avian creatures is well underway. Enjoy it while you can.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

DNR: Upland gamebird survey findings not so cut and dry

If you’re an upland bird hunter, don’t let the results of the August Roadside Survey trouble you too much.

That’s what Todd Bogenschutz is telling hunters, anyway.

According to the survey, the statewide pheasant population dropped 30 percent from 2016 while bobwhite quail numbers declined 23 percent. The numbers are derived from a total of 189 30-mile routes driven around the state. On average, the routes averaged 14.9 pheasants in 2017 compared to 21.4 in 2016. Quail, meanwhile, averaged 1.13 birds this year compared to 1.47 a year ago. Hungarian partridge numbers dropped 25 percent statewide from 2.8 to 2.1 birds per route this year.

But Bogenschutz says those numbers don’t match the reports he’s been receiving from around the state by landowners and others, suggesting Iowa’s upland birds are doing as well this year as last.

“Pheasant brood sightings are up statewide, and quail are being reported everywhere in the quail range,” said Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources who coordinates the survey.

That should translate into good news for ringneck and bobwhite hunters this fall, but why the difference in the survey results and anecdotal feedback?

Bogenschutz said the lack of dew in and ditches and fields during the survey timeframe is likely “a major factor skewing this year’s survey results.”

“Most of Iowa was listed as somewhere between being abnormally dry, in a drought or in a severe drought, during the survey,” he said in a DNR news release. “We need heavy dew when we do our surveys because it’s the dew that causes the hen to move her brood from the protective cover to the gravel road to dry off before they begin feeding. We coordinate our routes with that dry-off period. Without the dew, there is no reason for her to expose her chicks.”

Overwinter hen survival, brood survival and nest success are the major factors that impact upland bird populations.

“In years when snowfall is less than 30 inches, pheasant survival is good,” he said. “Warm, dry springs increase nesting success. A mix of the two will nudge the counts one way or the other.”

Bogenschutz said the majority of the state had “a below-average winter and a wetter-than-normal spring.”

“Based on those weather indicators, Iowa should have a stable to a slight decrease in the pheasant population,” he said. “In a nutshell, drought conditions probably lead to a poor survey count in 2017.”

Last season hunters shot an estimated 250,000 roosters, and Bogenschutz said he expects a similar harvest this fall.

In Iowa’s central zone, which includes, among others, Story, Boone and Hamilton counties, the survey showed pheasant counts dropped by 24 percent over last year from 31.6 birds per route to 24 this year. Partridge, however, jumped from 2.5 birds counted in 2016 to 5.2 per route this year, the highest average in the state and the only region that saw an increase in partridge numbers counted. None of the nine zones saw an increase in pheasant numbers this year with the central zone second only to the northwest zone, which saw 26.3 pheasants counted per route.

The complete August Roadside Survey can be found at www.iowadnr.gov/pheasantsurvey.

Continental duck numbers remain high

Iowa’s early teal season opens this weekend, and waterfowl hunters should have plenty of opportunities to bag a few small ducks now and also some bigger ones later in the fall, based on an annual survey released in mid-August.

The fourth year of Iowa’s experimental early teal season begins Saturday across the state and includes all three of its waterfowl hunting zones — the north (Sept. 2-10), south (Sept. 2-10) and Missouri River (Sept. 2-17). Hunters can shoot only blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal during the teal-only season. Bluewings are the most common teal in this region of the country and the second-most numerous duck behind only mallards in North America.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service’s 2017 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations survey, which was released Aug. 15, the total population was estimated at 47.3 million breeding ducks overall in the survey area. That number is statistically similar to the 48.4 million breeding pairs in 2016 and 34 percent above the long-term average.

The survey, which began in 1955, encompasses more than 2 million square acres of waterfowl habitat across Alaska, north-central and northeastern U.S. states and south-central, eastern and northern Canada. It does not include Iowa, Minnesota or Wisconsin and west of the Mississippi River in the Lower 48 includes only the Dakotas and half of Montana. It provides the scientific basis for many management programs across the continent, including hunting season dates and bag limits.

According to the survey, the number of blue-winged teal was up 18 percent from the 2016 estimate and 57 percent above the long-term average while the number of green-winged teal was down 16 percent from the 2016 estimate but still 70 percent above the long-term average.

Gadwall and northern shovelers saw increases in their populations from 2016 as did northern pintails, which also have been in decline in recent years. Pintail numbers were up 10 percent from a year ago but are still 27 percent below the long-term average.

After a bit of an increase a year ago, scaup, or bluebills, which have seen their numbers in steep decline in the past decade continued that trend by dipping 12 percent from 2016 and are now 13 percent below the long-term average.

Mallards saw a decline from 2016, registering 10.5 million birds, which was 11 percent lower than the 11.8 million birds a year ago. American wigeon (19 percent) and redhead (13 percent) numbers also dipped from a year ago, while canvasbacks numbers remained similar to last year’s survey.

Unlike the regular waterfowl seasons, which allow hunters to start shooting one-half hour before sunrise to one-half our after sunset, hunting hours for the teal-only season is sunrise to sunset. Nontoxic shot is required, and guns must be restricted to hold no more than three shells. Hunters get a daily bag limit of six teal and a possession limit of 18.

This is the final year of the experimental September teal-only season, which began in 2014. Hunter participation, success, feedback and rules compliance along with management strategies will factor into the decision whether the teal-only season will continue next year.

Plop! goes the leap frog


A green frog rests near the edge of Blackstone Lake in northeast Minnesota. A green frog may take two years to transform into a frog, spending one winter under the ice as a tadpole. Photo by Todd Burras

ELY, MINN. — I’ll come straight out with it: frogs are cool.


There, I’ve said it, the words leaping from my fingers on the computer keyboard to the text document on the computer screen as effortlessly as, well, a Northern leopard frog springing from its muddy and vegetative covert into the cool, clear water of a nearby lake.


It’s a sound I’ve been hearing a lot the past couple of weeks whenever I’ve had a chance to get out on a hike around a lake, a wetland or even a mucky patch along a portage trail.

When I’m not hearing frogs go plop! into the water or calling from dark and damp hiding places, I’m seeing them. Seemingly everywhere. Along the road, in the dry grass of our little yard while mowing and even in the middle of a barren, sunny clear-cut in the middle of the forest.

Frogs it seems, lately, are everywhere. No more prevalent than on the gravel road I take in the dusky shadows of evening on the final 3-mile stretch to home from town after work. I always drive slowly on the washboard, twisting, undulating run of non-pavement that snakes through the forest because one never knows when a speeding vehicle will come around the corner hogging two-thirds of the road or a white-tailed deer will pop out of a ditch.

Of late, however, it’s not been rude drivers or unsuspecting whitetails I’ve been most focused on. Rather, it’s all the frogs – and an occasional toad or garter snake – that want to share the road. I frequently slow down, swerve (as much as one can “swerve” when driving 20 to 25 mph) or pump the brakes to avoid flattening a frog, toad or snake. I know I’ve spared a few reptilian lives this summer, but I’m also equally certain that I’ve probably been responsible for a few casualties. It would be impossible to see everything crossing the road, especially when one considers the size and camouflaged colors of some of these small forest-dwellers.

I’m not certain when this summer I got interested in frogs; I’ve always been drawn to charismatic mega-fauna, such as moose, bears and wolves. In fact, it was likely while on various hiking trips in search of the aforementioned mammals that I kept running into frogs on or along the trails I traversed. Wood frogs. Green frogs. Mink frogs. Tree frogs, that broad classification of several species of smaller frogs, some of which measure less than an inch in length.

No different than moose, bears and wolves, frogs play an important role in the environment and food chain. They feast on slugs, crickets, snails, flies, mosquitoes, beetles and numerous other insects, utilizing their long tongue with a sticky pad that snatches prey so quickly that the human eye can’t detect the tongue’s movement in and out of their mouth. At the same time, frogs, which can live from 3 to 10 years, provide nutrition to a smorgasbord of creatures, no more so than for herons, bass and northern pike.

More could be written here about frogs, but one adaptation by wood frogs says much about why frogs are so cool, no pun intended. Wood frogs settle under leaf litter in the fall and then freeze solid in the winter. Yes, solid. Their heart and lungs shut down completely for several months and then with the help of glycerol – a natural antifreeze — they thaw out in the spring, undamaged and ready to head for their snowmelt breeding pools.

How cool is that?



Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.



Fill ‘er up, please: Hummingbirds beginning their epic migration south



A female ruby-throated hummingbird sips nectar. Photo by Todd Burras

ELY, MINN. – If the activity at the hummingbird feeder is a reliable indicator, then a significant change is in the air.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds hang around the cabin throughout the summer, but when there is the sort of frenetic feeding going on the likes I’ve witnessed the past two weeks it means they’re collectively coming or going. Arriving or departing. Coupled with the obvious shortening of sunlight on both ends of the day, it means the latter.

The hummingbirds in this area are fueling up as they begin their great migration south, and in an era and a culture known for hyperbole, it’s no exaggeration to deem their migration “epic.” In fact the hummingbird migration is a mind-blowing feat when one considers that many of these tiny creatures that weigh some 2 or 3 grams will travel by themselves 1,000 miles or more, including a grueling and harrowing 500-mile non-stop leg across the Gulf of Mexico, to Mexico and Central America.

In my mind, that’s epic.

So, too, is the monarch migration.

I watched a monarch flutter over the ditch by our driveway one morning this week. It stopped to sip nectar from the blossoms of a single fireweed plant. It’s only a few yards from the milkweed patch a few of us on this end of the road are happy to know is there. It’s the spot where dozens of caterpillars gorged themselves a few weeks back. Perhaps this lone monarch is one of those I watched.

This is a monarch that is of the generation, which, like the hummingbird, will make its own remarkable journey south for the winter. In this case, it likely destination will be the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve of Mexico. If this lone monarch is lucky and avoids predators, such as dragonflies, and speeding vehicles, it might just make its way south through Iowa along the Interstate 35 corridor, get a boost from all the nectar-producing wildflowers in the broad ditches, and arrive in Mexico sometime in September.

Those monarchs that survive the migration and the winter months will then make a return trip to someplace like northern Mexico or Texas in the spring where they’ll lay their eggs for the “new year generation” of monarchs. That first generation of butterflies will continue to migrate north but have very short lifecycles in which they produce the second generation of monarchs. Again, that next generation will continue migrating north to places such as Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere where two more generations – the great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of the overwintering monarchs in Mexico – are produced. It’s the fourth generation of those monarchs that will make their own migration back to Mexico, just like their great-great-grandparents.


If you haven’t already, it’s time to hang your hummingbird feeders and fill them up with a little sugar-water. Your handout might just be the fuel that’s needed to help one of these little flying jewels make it home for the winter. As compensation, they’ll visit your feeders again next spring when they make their return migration north for the summer.

Epic and simply amazing.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.


These strategies are designed to be bird savers

A yellow-bellied flycatcher waits to fly off after crashing into a window. Photo by Todd Burras

ELY, MINN. – The undeniable thud shook me from the fog of an early morning doze. It had been several months since I heard a similar sound, but it had not been forgotten. Birds colliding with windows are an unfortunate reality of living in a cabin in the woods.

Looking out the bedroom window from where the sound had originated I saw nothing out of the ordinary – sand, gravel, ledge rock, trees. If the bird had been injured upon impact, it would have been quickly observable on the ground near the window. In this case, it appeared the victim – likely a blue jay based on the volume of the – had quickly recovered and continued its flight to wherever it was destined.

In this particular situation, the bird hopefully escaped serious injury – a broken neck is often the result of such collisions — with only a contusion or two to its head and body. There is another unfavorable outcome that I was reminded of earlier this week after reading some email exchanges among members of a local nature and citizen science group. The discussion focused on a belted kingfisher that had seemingly survived a collision with a window and flown off after several moments of being tended to by the homeowner.

But, as one contributor pointed out, the kingfisher’s coming to its senses and flying off didn’t ensure its future.

“Many injuries can occur when a bird hits a window but often it is a head injury as it is usually the head that hits first. Sometimes it is the swelling or continued bleeding inside the skull that occurs after the initial injury that kills them. I am always happy to see an injured bird take off but realize there is still a great chance they will die.”

Unlike humans, who can be treated for head trauma, birds don’t have access to such emergency care. The best scenario is that they don’t collide with a window in the first place, and that’s where humans can try to help, with emphasis on the word “try.”

“I guess the best we can do for the birds is put something up on our windows that will break up the reflection that makes it look like smooth sailing to them,” the email continued.

Since windows tend to behave like mirrors to birds and reflect their surrounding habitat, they often fly directly into them. While data on the subject is inconclusive, various studies estimate that millions of birds die in collisions with windows each year in North America, alone.

Some of the strategies employed by birders to try and reduce the number of bird-window collisions include affixing predator silhouettes or a series of static-backed decals to the inside of windows, covering the glass on the outside with screening or netting or hanging ribbons, mobiles, Mylar streamers, wind chimes and even strings of CDs on the outside of the windows.

After witnessing some 20 crashes in three years here at the cabin – at least half of which resulted in immediate death to the avian victim – I got serious about trying to reduce the collisions on the front of the cabin, which features 11 windows and glass French doors. I affixed several static-backed decals on the upper windows, mesh netting on four of them and a hawk silhouette I cut out of cardboard in the center of the largest of the largest window.

The strategy seems to have helped this year as the number of collisions I’ve witnessed has dropped significantly – the lone exceptions being a pair of Blackburnian warblers that became casualties within a couple days of one another in early spring. Unlike the majority of other previous crashes, however, these two took place on the unadorned bottom windows. The same thing happened with the blue jay, which prompted me to conclude that more window-dressing is needed.

Ironically, I heard an interview over the weekend with the founder of a company that’s been touting its own strategy for reducing bird-window crashes for some 30 years. The idea is to hang window-length, 1/8th-inch-diameter strands of dark-olive parachute cord spaced about 4 inches apart using Velcro strips or screws and clamps on the outside of windows. While visitors to the birdsavers.com website can order customized, made-to-order Acopian BirdSavers from the company, founder Jeff Acopian encourages birders to make their own, offering complete instructions to do so on the company’s website.

Bird conservation over profit? I like it. I’ll be picking up some colorful paracord in the next couple of days.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

Driving amongst the daisies in the fading summer light

ELY, MINN. — The flowers in the ditches along the road between our cabin and the nearest town, Ely, some 10 miles away, provide an unfolding commentary on the progress of the seasons. The past few days, they seem to be saying that summer is waning and autumn — still seven weeks off according to the calendar — quickly approaching.

It’s not the single conspicuous sugar maple in all its autumn splendor that stands out like a traffic light among an otherwise verdant forest canopy. Though the brilliant red leaves do cause one to stop and consider what’s coming next.

Instead, the majority of the hints and signals the ditches project are subtle, such as the gradual yellowing of bracken ferns, the shriveling and browning of common milkweed flowers and the recent emergence of wispy gray beards on stands of field thistle and bull thistle, those prickly plants that provide the down used by American gold- finches to finally build their summer nests.

After more than a month in the spotlight and dominating large stretches of innumerable ditches, ox-eye daisies, with their pure white petals and golden centers, are disappearing as quickly as fresh snowflakes on a warm spring day. Gone, too, are the great displays of false sunflower, also known as ox-eye, blue flag iris, swamp buttercup, marsh marigold, orange hawkweed, black-eyed Susan, gumweed, daisy fleabane, and my favorite, big-leaf lupines.

This latter plant, which begins flowering in late May and stars for several weeks into early July, seems to spread a little more each year, flooding long stretches of byways with predominately bluish-purple, sometimes pinkish- red and occasionally white petals that arrange themselves on tall, sturdy stalks. Big-leaf lupine is a bit controversial as it is a non- native refugee garden plant that often crowds out native plants, including its close relative the wild lupine. Among ecosystem purists, the big-leaf lupine is to be scorned and abhorred; to most everyone else, it’s ebullient colors are some- thing to be admired and enjoyed.

Despite the disappearance in abundance and variety, there are still drips and drabs of color here and there. Already New England asters and fireweed, true harbingers of the changing season, are revealing themselves in the dusty ditches where they are joined by small clusters of golden Alexander, common tansy, stiff golden- rod and common mullen. These are all representatives in the finale of the summer wildflower show. So, too, is the thin ribbon of birds-foot trefoil that was originally planted as a way to control erosion along newly constructed roads, but like many non-native plants it took a liking to its new surroundings and quickly began spreading like fire. Seemingly its only competition for the real estate nearest most road edges appears to be red clover, another non-native plant that tends to thrive nearly everywhere that the sun shines.

There’s still a month to go before the deciduous trees begin to turn colors in earnest, and while the great panoply of summer wildflowers is fading as quickly as an autumnal sunset, there are still many less conspicuous flora to keep an eye out for along the roadside, no matter where you live.

Drive carefully and enjoy what remains.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

Monarchs in a royal battle for survival

Monarch caterpillars enjoy a meal on common milkweed plants in a ditch in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Todd Burras

ELY, MINN. – If monarch butterflies across the continent are on the brink of a population collapse of no return, then in our little corner of the universe the caterpillars that turn into the iconic black and orange jewels are also living precariously close to the edge.

Literally and figuratively.

It’s been a good year for milkweed production on the little patch of road near our cabin that has come to personally symbolize a tiny island of hope for the embattled monarch butterfly. As such, it also was a seemingly productive year for monarch caterpillars.

That wasn’t the case last year when fewer plants were the host to even fewer caterpillars. One summer ago I found no caterpillars on the milkweed plants in July and don’t recall seeing any monarchs in our neighborhood the entire summer.

Conversely, last week I counted more than three dozen caterpillars on a patch of some 100 mature common milkweeds that has at least doubled its plant population from a year ago. A neighbor who keeps close track of all things related to monarchs and milkweeds agrees that it’s been a good year for the little pollinator oasis that’s located between our homes.

The next stage will be to see if the caterpillars build chrysalises/cocoons in the surrounding vegetation and survive various threats, including parasitism from tachinid flies, toxic chemicals and even physical safety from cars, trucks and service vehicles, which hug the shallow ditch as they race past, leaving a coat of dust and fuel exhaust on the plants and delicate caterpillars that grow within inches of the pathway.

If all goes well, we should notice a few monarchs floating over the ditches, across the road and into our yard as early as the end of next week. Those new butterflies will join others of their kind and make up the next generation of migrant monarchs that will fly to Mexico where they will overwinter before making a return trip to the United States next spring.

The collapse of North America’s monarch butterfly population has been well chronicled in recent years. According to butterfly conservation organizations and coalitions, such as Monarch Watch, the Xerces Society and the Monarch Joint Venture, monarch numbers in the past decade and a half have plummeted in the United States due to the lack of availability of milkweeds, which are the only host food plant for monarch caterpillars, a lack of nectar-producing plants due to the conversion of habitat to agricultural land, exposure to pesticides, climate change and illegal logging and deforestation within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near the Michoacan-Mexico State border, northwest of Mexico City, the Eastern monarch’s historic wintering territory.

A report issued by the National Wildlife Federation earlier this year claims the overall population of monarchs in North America declined by 27 percent from last year and 90 percent in the last two decades. According to the report, the population is measured by the number of acres occupied by the monarch butterflies in their overwintering habitat in Mexico. This past winter there were an estimated 109 million monarchs occupying just 7.2 acres, down from 150 million monarchs last year covering 9.9 acres.

The annual monarch migration that at one time was one of the great spectacles of the natural world has turned into a mere shadow of its once vibrant and brilliant self.

There is some good news in this otherwise grim story, however. Because of the nearly mythical status monarchs have achieved in the collective psyche of many Americans, grass roots efforts have sprung up across the continent in response to the perilous plight of these iconic creatures. Research by small but dedicated teams of students and staff at colleges and universities across the country, including Iowa State University, has helped draw in conservation organizations and a small army of concerned citizens who are working to create a patchwork of habitat across the landscape. Their goal is to aid monarchs in their annual pilgrimage from Mexico to the United States and back to Mexico.

Whether it’s enrolling private acres in the USDA’s pollinator program (bees are a primary pollinator of milkweeds), planting milkweeds and other nectar-producing plants in your backyard garden or even scattering a few milkweed seeds in a ditch later this summer, monarchs – and butterflies, moths, bees and pollinators of all kinds – continue to need a helping hand. What can you do to help?

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

Pheasant numbers may soar this fall

Ring-necked pheasant numbers could increase this fall in Iowa, according to a state upland game biologist. Photo by Carl Kurtz/cpkurtz@netins.net

If winter and spring statewide weather conditions are an accurate indicator, then upland gamebird hunters should be optimistic heading into the field this autumn.

That’s the opinion of Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Bogenschutz relies on winter and spring conditions as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make the pre-season pheasant predictions.

“Last year our weather model predicted no change or a small increase in pheasant numbers, and our roadside counts showed a 12 percent decrease so the model was in the ballpark with a stable population,” Bogenschutz said. “We’ve used this model to forecast pheasant trends since 2002 and it’s been correct 12 of those 15 years.”

Bogenschutz said the state’s pheasant population typically shows increases following mild winters with springs that are dryer and warmer than normal.

“Statewide snowfall from December through February averaged 20 inches or about 5 inches below the 1961 to 1990 average,” he said. “The vast majority of the state saw snowfall well below this average with only the northwest and north-central regions reporting above normal snowfall.”

The pheasant population typically shows an increase following milder winters because more hens survive the winter leading to more hens available for nesting.

“The spring started nicely with warmer-than-normal March and April temperatures, while May was cooler than normal,” Bogenschutz said. “According to the state climatologist, statewide nesting season rainfall (April and May) was 8.7 inches, while April-May temperatures averaged 54.8 degrees, both very close to historic averages. Rainfall totals were a bit wetter than normal in both April and May but fairly consistent statewide.”

That said, Bogenschutz anticipates a stable to increasing population of pheasants that will be available to hunters starting in late October.

“Our weather this year is nearly identical to what we saw in 2015, and statewide pheasant counts increased 40 percent that year,” he said. “If we document a similar increase to 2015 in bird numbers on our roadside counts, it may mark our highest statewide count since 2006.”

The DNR’s August roadside survey is the best gauge of what upland populations will be this fall. The DNR will post survey results on its website around Sept. 15.

“Anecdotally, staff and landowners have reporting more roosters crowing and male bobwhite calling across the southern one-third of Iowa this spring, a sign of good overwinter survival,” Bogenschutz said. “Bobwhite numbers could be some of the best seen in decades.”

Successful martin hatch
It’s too early to say a new purple martin colony has been established at Ada Hayden Heritage Park, but if this summer was an indication, then there’s reason to be hopeful that one will be established in the next couple of years.

This spring and summer, two pairs of martins used compartments in the large T-14 house situated between the lake basins at the popular park in Ames. Dave Duit, who helped construct and install the house nearly three years ago, is clearly pleased with this year’s developments at the site.

“There were five nestlings in each of the two compartments, and each of the two nests successfully fledged all of their nestlings about 30 days after they hatched,” said Duit, who lives in Nevada and works at Ames High School. “The parents will train their newly fledged offspring for two weeks — how to catch bugs, keep away from predators and sharpen their flying skills.”

Near the end of August, Duit said, the martins will start their 5,000-mile journey to Brazil where they will spend the winter.

“They will fly around 250 to 350 miles per day,” he said. “If we all cross our fingers, hopefully 10 to 20 percent of the nestlings will return back to their

Ada Hayden home in early April.”

Duit said if all 10 nestlings survive their round-trip migration only one or two will take up residence at the Ada Hayden site; the other eight or nine “will find housing in the area of Ames. They may also find a new home to call their own during their spring migration.”

“The adult parents will return because they were successful in raising a family,” he said. “This is now ingrained and is what is known as site fidelity.”

Not until a site reaches five pairs of nesting martins can it be called a colony.

“This could take a few years,” Duit said. “We are playing a numbers game, and once the site hits a critical number and the house and martins are taken care of, the colony will be thriving with martins.”

Duit said he encourages the public to stay on the bike path to observe the martins and to not approach the house for their own safety as well as that of the martins.

Waiting on swifts
Another new man-made nesting and roosting structure of interest to birders in the area is the chimney swift tower at the new Dakins Lake Park near Zearing.

The 12-foot-tall tower with vinyl siding that is anchored to a concrete slab was constructed late last fall by local Boy Scout Sam Taylor as part of his Eagle project.

The tower, which is designed to be used by a pair of nesting birds in the spring and summer, could hold up to potentially 100 roosting birds in the lead-up to the fall migration.

“I didn’t see any activity (Monday) when I checked, though it probably wasn’t the most ideal time of day and weather conditions to do so,” said Erica Place, outreach coordinator for Story County Conservation. “I’m hopeful it will be used this fall as a roosting site. It might take some time for the swifts to find it.”

If they do, much like the martins, it will take only a short time before it becomes a familiar nesting and roosting site for future flocks of chimney swifts.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.