Martins settling in to house at Ada Hayden

A male purple martin flies in the sky above Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. Two pairs of martins have recently moved into the large nesting structure situated between the two basins of the lake. Photo by Wolf Oesterreich

“Build it and they will come” has become a mantra for conservation groups that view the creation of habitat as one of the most significant investments humans can make in supporting wildlife.

In some cases, building housing structures and adding them to the surrounding landscape, or habitat, is a vital component to a particular species’ survival. That’s certainly been the case in helping bluebird and wood duck populations recover and flourish for many, many years, and more recently it’s become en vogue as a means for helping bats, ospreys, chimney swifts and even some native bees, among other wildlife.

The dilemma humans in our culture face at times, however, is we don’t like playing the waiting game. If we “build it,” we want them – whatever the “them” are — to come now. In fact, right now. But unlike most people, nature isn’t always in a hurry, and animals certainly don’t work on a human being’s time schedule. Nature has its own rhythms and priorities, and human conservation is, after all, a practice with a long view of the future. Waiting is a required expectation and condition in most cases.

Dave Duit certainly knows a bit about waiting. The Nevada resident has come to expect it and teaches patience to those who share his interest in aiding one of those species that has evolved with a significant dependence on humans: the purple martin.

Duit put up his first purple martin gourd house about a decade ago, and it took five years before the first pair of martins moved in. Since then, he’s attracted dozens of nesting pairs to his backyard and seen hundreds of offspring produced. As founder of the Iowa Purple Martin Organization, he’s helped others around the state start or revitalize martin colonies.

“It just takes time,” he said. “Martins have strong site fidelity and the adults won’t leave their established site unless there is a bad predator attack day after day. The second-year martins from a nearby site are the ones that will usually start a new colony.”

As of last week, it appears that purple martins are finally beginning to establish a new colony at the site of a purple martin house, or hotel, between the lake basins at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. Duit and Dustin Haegele, an Ames High student at the time, constructed the house nearly three years ago and installed it at a prominent location at the popular recreational area.

“I’m very excited and happy to announce that there are two purple martin nests at the Ada Hayden martin house,” Duit said by way of email late last week. “One is for certain made from an older pair because of its well-built intricate construction. If it were a young pair it wouldn’t be as elaborate. This first nest has five eggs, which tells me it is an older pair. Younger pairs usually have less than five eggs in a clutch. … The other nest may be made by a younger pair. It has small green leaves placed in the cup of the nest, which indicates they will be laying eggs very soon.”

Duit said when an older pair nests in a new location other than its original colony, it likely means the two martins abandoned their old colony due to extreme mite infestation, which was not controlled by the landlord of their dwelling; continual predator attacks from hawks or owls; sparrows or starlings took over the site; or their clutch was destroyed by sparrows pecking holes in the eggs.

“Purple martins are 100 percent reliant upon human-made housing east of the Missouri River,” Duit said. “One of the reasons I started the Iowa Purple Martin Organization is to educate the public on the need for martin housing.”

But establishing a healthy martin colony isn’t limited to just providing a nesting structure, Duit said. It also means being a good landlord by trying to eliminate English house sparrows and European starlings from the site area; picking a safe location from predators, such as owls and hawks; perhaps putting a protective cage over the house; and cleaning out nesting cavities at the end of the summer.

If you do those things, and add a little patience into the process, you might just be rewarded. The site at Ada Hayden is a case in point.

“If these two pair successfully raise their nestlings to fledge, there is a strong likelihood that 10 to 20 percent of these new baby martins will return to the Ada Hayden martin house next year, while the other 80 to 90 percent will seek out new housing within the area,” Duit said. “That’s pretty exciting to me.”

And that’s one way how conservation practices take hold and wildlife populations can flourish and expand.

 

  • ••

More information on purple martins can be found at www.iamartin.org

Dave Duit is seeking volunteers to help monitor the martin site at Ada Hayden Heritage Park. If interested, contact him by email at daveduit@yahoo.com.

 

Slow down, back up and give turtles a little brake

A female Northern painted turtle lays eggs in a mound of sand and dirt near Fall Lake in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Stephanie Burras

 

ELY, MINN. — If spring is a time in the natural world for new birth, then summer is the season for those vulnerable young creatures to hurry and grow as fast as they can before migration beckons or winter arrives. If you’re a fledgling or a fawn, it’s a time to hurry.

Not so if you are a turtle.

Turtles are a bit of an anomaly in the wild kingdom. Unlike many of the bird and mammal species that live around them, turtles wait until early summer to ramp up the reproduction process. It’s this time of year that female turtles crawl out of the ooze of their wetland homes and climb to higher, drier ground in search of suitable soil conditions in which to lay their eggs.

In our corner of the world, one of those apparent prime areas for creating nests in which to deposit fragile eggs happens to be our driveway. Right where we like to park. And turn around. Turtles, it seems, are not averse to taking one’s parking spot or holding up traffic when it comes to the urgency of reproduction.

This is our fifth summer at the cabin we are happy to spend time at above a bog in the Superior National Forest. It’s also the fifth summer we’ve seen female Northern painted turtles show up in the first week of July looking for spots in the hardscrabble of the gravel driveway in which to lay their eggs.

Northern painted turtles are those gentle blackish-olive-green, red and yellow turtles the size of large pancakes that surely everyone has seen in person, if not close enough to touch then at least a lineup of them sunning themselves on a log in a pond.

In our neighborhood, painted turtles seem to be over or around nearly every hill or corner. In the past week, I’ve abruptly pulled over on a busy highway twice, hurriedly run into the center of the road and snatched up a turtle and delivered its flailing body to the other side — in the direction it was going — in order to potentially spare its life.

Others haven’t been so lucky. I’ve seen five turtle fatalities along the road in the past week. At our cabin in recent years, I’ve also observed several disturbed turtle nests — I suspect ravens and foxes — and have yet to see empirical evidence of successfully hatched offspring in the form of baby turtles.

Still, each summer, one or two female painted turtles haul their carapaces up the steep hill from the bog to our driveway to dig shallow holes in the dry and rocky soil. Perhaps intuitively, they lay lots of eggs, coming back several days in a row and digging separate nests for their future offspring. It’s a safeguard to ensure the propagation and continuation of the species.

Summer is a time for turtles. If you see one crossing the road, be sure to give it a brake — or a helping hand.

 

Summertime Dream: Season of the sun passes much too quickly

A doe and her two yearling twins, a male and female, pause on a granite outcropping in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Todd Burras

 

ELY, MINN. – The welts, rashes, scabs and scratches on my arms and legs are a sure sign that summer has finally come in earnest to the North Woods.

It takes longer for warming temperatures to arrive here than further south, but once they do, nature seems to put the pedal to the metal and races through the spring and summer months. The farther north one travels, the shorter but more intense this special renewal time is for nature to go through its necessary reproduction rhythms.

Nothing seems more eager to embrace the heat and longer sunny days than the harassing and bloodsucking legions of mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, ticks and other biting insects. It matters not how well one covers up, incessant insects seem to find their way under, over and through any sort of natural barrier of clothing or manmade repellent intended to stop them. It sometimes seems I get as many bites while I sleep as I do when I’m outside working or recreating. Insects have an uncanny way of getting into buildings, tents, vehicles and beds.

But enough about the low point of the season at hand; it’s more fun to observe and enjoy the high points, such as berries, birds, butterflies, bees and babies – as in baby bunnies, fawns, ducklings, goslings and loonlings, among a throng of others. Predators, whether eagles, pike, wolves, martins, voles or dragonflies, are a vital component to all healthy ecosystems, and this is a time of feasting for them as prey is plentiful and easy to find. Still, I find myself quietly rooting for the little waterfowl that bob up and down on the water and the wobbly-legged moose calves and deer fawns that need to add weight, strength and stamina in this short season of plenty.

I ate my first wild strawberries earlier this week – tiny, juicy pea-sized morsels loaded with sweet flavor and pizzazz. Store-bought berries, for all their size and color, have nothing on these little gems. The same can be said of other wild fruit, as well. While strawberries are ripe or ripening, blueberries are setting fruit in some places and raspberries bushes are covered with blossoms. Bunchberries, a small, festive and common forest floor dweller here, also are blooming. Their pretty, white flowers eventually will be replaced by clusters of bright red berries.
In the trees around the cabin, Blackburnian warblers, American redstarts, common yellowthroats, black and white warblers, wood peewees, robins, grosbeaks, and hermit thrush, among others, are still singing as they defend their territories and instruct their young. The same is true on nearby streams and lakes as loons, Canada geese and numerous species of ducks do the same, hurrying their offspring along in a race to be ready by the time autumn arrives.

Along the roadsides, buttercups, wild roses, common milkweed and blue flag irises provide splashes of color to the verdant landscape, and, more importantly, pollen and nectar for pollinators. Non-native species, such as yellow and orange hawkweed, lupine, ox-eye daisies, birds-foot trefoil, add a panoply of color to the ditches and open fields everywhere.

Common Eastern, orange-belted and golden Northern bumblebees, a perhaps most underappreciated pollinator that flies under the radar of most of us, are working for all their worth, gathering pollen as they drone about in the warmth that all too soon will begin to wane.

Other pollinators, such as butterflies — tiger swallowtails, white admirals, monarchs and viceroys — and moths, lots of moths, flutter from plant to plant, sowing and harvesting as they go. There are so many different moths I’m reluctant to try to identify any of them. All I know is I’ve decided that moths are super cool, even if they do make a mess of your windshields while driving at night.

In the daytime, dragonflies can do a number on your windshields as well as the grill of your vehicle. The dragonfly hatch occurred early this year, and they seem to be everywhere that water and mosquitoes gravitate, which, this wet spring and early summer means chalk-fronted corporals and green darners are, well, everywhere.

Dragonflies are expert hunters, primarily because they’re expert fliers, in some instances reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. Some scientists put dragonflies at the top of the list when it comes to their aeronautical skills. Most importantly, they consume mosquitoes like voraciously hungry bears consume pound after pound of ants, hazelnuts and berries this time of year.

Already the amount of daylight is lessoning, the window on the growing season while seemingly just having opened is slowly closing. Summer, like the passage of our lives, is like a delicate flower that lasts for only the briefest of moments and yet brings great joy to those who notice it. Be among those who look and see.

 

Martins settling in to house at Ada Hayden

A male purple martin flies in the sky above Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. Two pairs of martins have recently moved into the large nesting structure situated between the two basins of the lake. Photo by Wolf Oesterreich

“Build it and they will come” has become a mantra for conservation groups that view the creation of habitat as one of the most significant investments humans can make in supporting wildlife.

In some cases, building housing structures and adding them to the surrounding landscape, or habitat, is a vital component to a particular species’ survival. That’s certainly been the case in helping bluebird and wood duck populations recover and flourish for many, many years, and more recently it’s become en vogue as a means for helping bats, ospreys, chimney swifts and even some native bees, among other wildlife.

The dilemma humans in our culture face at times, however, is we don’t like playing the waiting game. If we “build it,” we want them – whatever the “them” are — to come now. In fact, right now. But unlike most people, nature isn’t always in a hurry, and animals certainly don’t work on a human being’s time schedule. Nature has its own rhythms and priorities, and human conservation is, after all, a practice with a long view of the future. Waiting is a required expectation and condition in most cases.

Dave Duit certainly knows a bit about waiting. The Nevada resident has come to expect it and teaches patience to those who share his interest in aiding one of those species that has evolved with a significant dependence on humans: the purple martin.

Duit put up his first purple martin gourd house about a decade ago, and it took five years before the first pair of martins moved in. Since then, he’s attracted dozens of nesting pairs to his backyard and seen hundreds of offspring produced. As founder of the Iowa Purple Martin Organization, he’s helped others around the state start or revitalize martin colonies.

“It just takes time,” he said. “Martins have strong site fidelity and the adults won’t leave their established site unless there is a bad predator attack day after day. The second-year martins from a nearby site are the ones that will usually start a new colony.”

As of last week, it appears that purple martins are finally beginning to establish a new colony at the site of a purple martin house, or hotel, between the lake basins at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. Duit and Dustin Haegele, an Ames High student at the time, constructed the house nearly three years ago and installed it at a prominent location at the popular recreational area.

“I’m very excited and happy to announce that there are two purple martin nests at the Ada Hayden martin house,” Duit said by way of email late last week. “One is for certain made from an older pair because of its well-built intricate construction. If it were a young pair it wouldn’t be as elaborate. This first nest has five eggs, which tells me it is an older pair. Younger pairs usually have less than five eggs in a clutch. … The other nest may be made by a younger pair. It has small green leaves placed in the cup of the nest, which indicates they will be laying eggs very soon.”

Duit said when an older pair nests in a new location other than its original colony, it likely means the two martins abandoned their old colony due to extreme mite infestation, which was not controlled by the landlord of their dwelling; continual predator attacks from hawks or owls; sparrows or starlings took over the site; or their clutch was destroyed by sparrows pecking holes in the eggs.

“Purple martins are 100 percent reliant upon human-made housing east of the Missouri River,” Duit said. “One of the reasons I started the Iowa Purple Martin Organization is to educate the public on the need for martin housing.”

But establishing a healthy martin colony isn’t limited to just providing a nesting structure, Duit said. It also means being a good landlord by trying to eliminate English house sparrows and European starlings from the site area; picking a safe location from predators, such as owls and hawks; perhaps putting a protective cage over the house; and cleaning out nesting cavities at the end of the summer.

If you do those things, and add a little patience into the process, you might just be rewarded. The site at Ada Hayden is a case in point.

“If these two pair successfully raise their nestlings to fledge, there is a strong likelihood that 10 to 20 percent of these new baby martins will return to the Ada Hayden martin house next year, while the other 80 to 90 percent will seek out new housing within the area,” Duit said. “That’s pretty exciting to me.”

And that’s one way how conservation practices take hold and wildlife populations can flourish and expand.

 

  • ••

More information on purple martins can be found at www.iamartin.org

When it comes to acting, killdeer are avian rock stars

Dad, what’s wrong with that bird?

That was the question posed by our daughter, Elizabeth, as we walked down the sidewalk toward the car following church.

The bird in question was flopping about on the stone-covered walkway like a mortally injured gamebird shortly before gasping its final breath. With wings akimbo, the brown-and-white-colored bird with black neck bands indeed looked as if it was on its last leg, literally and figuratively.

It quickly struck me, however, as I looked up from the bird to see the concern on Elizabeth’s face that this wasn’t a struggle over pending death but rather a ruse in an effort to preserve life. Or, as the case may be, future lives.

As you may have already deduced from the description of what occurred or from looking at the accompanying photo that the animated bird was a killdeer, and he or she was simply doing what any killdeer parent does when it or its young are confronted with danger: feigning injury. Like some other species, killdeer will perform a broken-wing impression in an effort to draw attention away from its nest of eggs or its young. In our case, the killdeer was trying to divert our attention away from its nest — a simple depression in the rocks — and its contents: four tan eggs with dark markings.

It’s easy to be both impressed and amused by the antics of killdeer. They ardently utilize both vocal and theatrical expression to draw the attention of people or potential predators to themselves and then lead them on a wild chase away from their nest or offspring. Once they sense they have created a safe distance between the intruder and whatever they are protecting, the adult killdeer miraculously recovers from its “injury” and flies even further away, often with the predator in pursuit.

Killdeer are upland shorebirds that tend not to spend time at the shore. Rather, they prefer gravel roadways, mudflats, railroad edges and open fields where they feast on insects and occasionally snails, crayfish and worms. Killdeer are most closely related to plovers and spend the spring, summer and fall throughout all of the upper Midwest before migrating to southern states and Central America for winter.

The next time you see a boisterous bird dragging its wing and frantically calling “kill-deer, kill-deer,” don’t take the bait. Instead, carefully look around for a nest of well-camouflaged eggs or, if you’re fortunate, a small clutch of fledglings that look like stilted dandelions going to seed. Either way, you’ll be happy to have made the discovery.

 

 

Bee Present

There’s so much that goes on in the natural world around us, even directly beneath our feet. In this photo on a prairie pothole just outside of Ames, numerous plant and animal species inhabit a tiny space. What do you see that you can identify? Look at the end of the short column for the answer. Photo by Todd Burras

We don’t see because we don’t look.

We don’t look because we don’t slow down.

We don’t slow down because we’re in too big a hurry to get on to the next thing.

Most of the time we don’t see the trees for the forest. One wonders if we even see the forest much of the time.

Maybe we should heed the wisdom in one of the lyrics of the old Simon and Garfunkel song “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” otherwise known as “Feelin’ Groovy.” “Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last.”

Instead of “morning,” I’d interject “moment.” We’ve got to make the moment last.

Slow down. Look. Listen. Ask questions. Seek out answers. Be present. Be alert. Be all in.

It’s the only way we can begin to see and appreciate the trees for the forest, and everything else that’s beautiful in the world around us.

— Todd Burras

Pictured above: American toad, honey bee, creeping charlie, white clover, Kentucky bluegrass, dandelion. There could be others.

 

On the Lookout for Night Eyes

 

Northern flying squirrels are frequent night-time visitors to birdseed feeders. Photo by Larry Dau

ELY, MINN. – Those of us who are in the business of trying to attract birds to our backyards by filling feeders with an assortment of seeds are familiar with watching the contents of those differently-shaped tubes, cubes and trays disappear.

But when a feeder turns up empty of its contents in the first light of dawn after being full at sunset the night prior, one can deduce there’s a high probability that the pilferer of seeds was likely a furry rather than a feathered friend.

Such overnight guests in Mid-Iowa most likely would be raccoons or opossums, which are primarily nocturnal creatures. In the Superior National Forest of northeast Minnesota where our cabin is located, neither of those mammals has made much of an inroad, yet, so a most likely culprit could be a black bear.

One late-night seed-eating creature found in both locations, however, is as stealthy as a fox but as seemingly gentle as a fawn. I’m talking about the shy and reclusive flying squirrel.

Unlike their name indicates, however, flying squirrels don’t actually fly; rather, they glide.

“In part, this is due to a large flap of skin (patagium) attached to its front and hind legs and sides of its body,” writes naturalist Stan Tekiela. “To glide, a flying squirrel will climb to the top of a tree and launch itself, extending its four legs outward and stretching the patagium to make a flat, wing-like airfoil. Its flat tail adds some additional lift and acts like a rudder to help maneuver objects while gliding. … To create an air brake for a soft landing, the squirrel will quickly lift its head and tuck its tail between its hind legs.”

Larry Dau, a Boone County resident who also owns a cabin in northwest Wisconsin, has been observing and photographing flying squirrels for many years.

“I have seen them glide in from more than 100 feet and even pick up altitude at the end of their glide,” Dau said.

There are two species of flying squirrels – the northern and southern – and while the squirrels that are frequent visitors to our cabin and Dau’s are the northern species, those living in Iowa are the southern species, said Jim Pease, emeritus associate professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. Their ranges do, however, ranges overlap in many areas of the country, Dau said.

“The northern is known for being in the boreal forest,” he said. “In Iowa, they would normally be in the oak-hickory woods.

The two species of flying squirrels vary in length and weight, with the northern being slightly bigger at around 9 to 10 inches in total length and weighing about 3 to 4 ounces while the southern tends to be around 7 to 8 inches long and weigh roughly 2 to 3 ounces. Both species are active year-round and will often build a nest in an abandoned woodpecker cavity to raise their young. Both species also are omnivores, feeding on insects, seeds, nuts, catkins, eggs, mice, birds, mushrooms and other fungi.

“At the cabin, we have a mixed conifer and deciduous forest,” Dau said. “So we have lots of acorns and pinecones for them to feed on. At my feeders they come in for peanuts and sunflower seeds.”

No matter where you live, the chances of seeing them are slim.

“Rarely do they come out in daylight,” Dau said.

The best chance to possibly see one is to go outside after dusk and to listen for the soft bird-like calls of the adults, the high-pitched squeaks of the young or the sound of something scrambling on the bark. Shining a flashlight in the direction of the sounds might reveal a small brown creature with bulging eyes and a long tail. Often, they will freeze at the presence of light and you can get a good look.

“They move very fast,” Dau said. “Guests at the cabin are fascinated by their flights, quick movements and antics. They will watch them for an hour or two.”

Once you’ve seen a flying squirrel, it’s easy to understand why.

 

Watch them fly … or glide

To see video clips of flying squirrels, visit Larry Dau’s website: https://larryd.smugmug.com/Nature/Northern-Flying-Squirrels-Fall/

 

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

Following the Yellow Marsh Marigold Road

ELY, MINN. – Sunny fields of gold this time of year across the Midwest are the colorful result of uncommonly prolific common dandelions. In standing water of low-lying forests, potholes, bogs, swamps and ditches, however, the occasional “yellow brick road” through an often otherwise brown landscape is usually the result of spectacular masses of marsh marigold.

Neither a marigold nor a cowslip, marsh marigold is an annual wildflower that’s a member of the buttercup family. The name “marigold” comes from an old English world that means “marsh-gold.” As the name suggests, marsh marigold are water-loving wildflowers that like to “keep their feet wet.” They grow to a height of 1 to 2 feet, produce yellow upturned petal-like sepals that form a shallow cup and have thick leaves that are dark green.

Sig Olson, one of the country’s most renowned naturalists, conservationists and authors of the mid-20th century, called marsh marigold the “flower of the spring floods.”

In this region of the country in which Olson lived, where there is a seemingly never-ending labyrinth of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands, marsh marigold abound during May.

“The earth was trying its best to cover its soggy desolation while waiting for the green of early summer,” Olson wrote in his classic “The Singing Wilderness.” “The butter-yellow mats that had come so swiftly would hold sway until other flowers began to bloom, adding a not of color and aliveness. But by the time the creeks were back to summer levels, the marigold would be forgotten, remembered only by trout fishermen as bedding in their creels.”

Closer to home in central Iowa, marsh marigold, though not so prolific as in some regions of the Midwest, can be found earlier in the spring with a little effort.

“They were in full bloom on April 23,” said Tom Rosberg, a prairie expert who lives near Colo and teaches at Drake University. “I cannot think of a population in Story County, but there could be. The closest one I know of is at Turtlehead Fen in Polk County.”

Steve Lekwa, a lifelong resident of Story County, said, “There used to be a little of it just north of the Prairie View pull-off on Interstate 35 south of Story City near the bottom of a wet draw. I haven’t been there in many years, though.”

Jimmie Thompson, an Ames resident who has conducted plant inventories throughout Mid-Iowa, said small populations of marsh marigold exist in the area, but others have been lost.

“Years ago there was a very small population on the west-facing slope overlooking Squaw Creek at the Northridge subdivision within the Ames city limits,” said Thompson. “But I think that population has been extirpated.”

Thompson said during his four-year plant inventories of Boone and Hamilton counties, he found a small population of marsh marigold at Bjorkboda Marsh in Hamilton County as well as a few places in Boone County. He said he has also seen a population of it at the south end of Brushy Creek State Park in Webster County.

Carl Kurtz, another prairie expert who lives near Zearing, said there is a little in the wet areas of his prairie, but it isn’t very prevalent around the area.

“I was hoping to collect some seed this year,” Kurtz said, “but am behind on that endeavor.”

At least there’s always next year.

Marsh marigold is past the blooming stage in central Iowa for the season, but make a note to look for it next spring. As Glenda the Good Witch of the North told Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” just “follow the yellow brick road.”

 

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

 

 

Some swallows think these towers are pretty swift

 

Most of us are familiar with bluebird and wood duck boxes, purple martin, bat and mallard hen houses, and maybe even bee condos and bee hotels.

But chimney swift towers?

That one was new to me when this past winter I read Boy Scout Sam Taylor’s Eagle Scout Service Project in the Story County Partners’ newsletter.

Taylor, a 16-year-old sophomore at Ames High School, chose to construct a chimney swift tower after being presented a list of possible projects from staff at Story County Conservation. With the help of other Scouts, adult leaders and his parents, he completed the project last fall by Dakins Lake near Zearing and recently had his Eagle Award ceremony.

While chimney swift roosting towers might be unfamiliar to some of us, prior to taking on the project Taylor didn’t even know of the existence of chimney swifts, a member of the swallow family.

“They sent me a list of projects, and I just thought this one looked interesting,” Taylor said. “So I started doing some research and got the book “Chimney Swift Towers: New Habitat for America’s Mysterious Birds,” which had the plans for the tower. I also communicated with the authors (Paul and Georgean Kyle) to get some ideas from them.”
Erica Place, outreach coordinator for Story County Conservation, said staff members are always on the lookout for new features to add to the county’s park system.

“The idea came about when we learned that a Boy Scout constructed a tower of similar design at Jester Park as his Eagle Scout Service Project in 2015,” she said. “I regularly ask our staff for Eagle Scout Project ideas, and (Natural Resource Specialist) Amy (Yoakum) suggested we add this to our list of potential projects. It wasn’t on the list long before Sam grabbed it.”

There are different designs for chimney swift towers, and Taylor settled on a three-box-affixed, 12-foot-tall tower with vinyl siding that is anchored to a concrete slab. The tower could potentially hold up to about 100 roosting and nesting birds.

“We originally thought of putting it at McFarland Park but then decided it wasn’t close enough to a town,” Taylor said. “We decided on Dakins Lake just outside of Zearing thinking the birds were more likely to come to the town and then find the tower.”

Steve Dinsmore, professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University, said chimney swift tower construction, while not new, is a growing bird conservation practice.

“This is becoming more popular as we recognize that swifts continue to decline,” he said. “I do think they are effective, but most probably only house a small number of pairs.”

Historically, chimney swifts migrated to the United States from their winter homes in Peru and spent the nesting season in the more heavily forested eastern half of the country and rarely were seen west of the Mississippi River. However, as forests were cleared, swifts began adapting their nesting and roosting habits to include chimneys and smoke stacks. As a result, their range expanded and now extends from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains, according to the Chimney Swift Conservation Association.

However, since the mid-1960s, chimney swift numbers have been in decline, primarily due to the loss of habitat in the form of large old building structures being demolished. Chimneys in newly constructed buildings are typically made from metal, which is unsuitable to swifts because it is too slippery for them to cling to as well as for their nests.

This is where a pioneering Iowa ornithologist and Taylor’s project converge.

In 1915, Althea Rosina Sherman, a writer and illustrator born in National, Iowa, hired carpenters to build a 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower, from her own designs, to attract and observe nesting chimney swifts. For nearly two decades she researched swifts, but after her death the tower was moved and fell into disrepair.

In recent years, though, interest in Sherman and her research has grown and after years of planning and fundraising, the original tower was restored and placed on a preserve near Buchanan, Iowa, where it is being used to educate people on chimney swift conservation, which includes building towers, such as the one Taylor constructed.

“I haven’t been out to check it this spring,” Taylor said. “But hopefully the chimney swifts will find it and use it.”

 

  • ••

To learn more about Althea Rosina Sherman, visit www.althearsherman.org.

A swift half

Want to know more about chimney swifts and how you can help them? You can, says Steve Dinsmore, professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University.

“Many states now have formal chimney swift surveys in place, mostly at known towers and also at known roosts during fall migration,” Dinsmore said. These are citizen science projects.”

To learn more about a group that sponsors “A Swift Night Out” as part of these efforts, visit www.chimneyswifts.org.

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

 

It’s just dande to bee dancing in the sunlight

As darkness gave way to light Tuesday morning, the sky revealed an ancient luminary that I had begun to wonder whether I would ever see again.

Ahhhhhh, the sun.

It has returned.

At last.

At long last.

A couple hours later as I sat in a chair looking into the backyard I noticed something I couldn’t take my eyes off: bees. More precisely, Steph’s two new colonies of honey bees. They seemed as exuberant as I felt when I awoke a little earlier in the morning. In the dappled sunlight streaming through the giant pin oak the bees were flying and working and singing.

My heart danced.

The bees arrived in their cages on April 22, a bright sunny day in its own right. Into the hives each colony and their queen went, and for the next four days, the weather cooperated and we watched them come and go. We wondered, with great interest, if inside the each hive the bees had eaten through the candy plug and released their queen from the small cage that holds her until they get acclimated to her pheromones and hopefully accept her. If they didn’t she might be dead; if they did, she could also have met her demise. Colonies usually accept their queen. Usually but not always.

We were a day away from opening the hives to check on each colony’s queen, when the spring-time weather turned, well, to spring-time weather. For the next six days it rained and blew and the temperature dipped and dropped and dipped some more — miserable weather for people, even worse for newly released bees in need of acclimating themselves to their surroundings and building a vibrant colony.

When you’re a worker bee, it’s tough to do your job of collecting pollen and nectar when it’s cold, wet and windy out. When you’re a human, at least you can turn up the furnace or put on a raincoat.

So when the inclement weather finally relented and Steph could finally get in and check the hives, we were relieved to see evidence that both queens are alive and seemingly doing well. It’s too early in the process to see if the queens are hard working and if they expect as much from their colonies of thousands of worker bees. But at least the sun is out, the queens are on their thrones and, for now, all is right in the backyard.

May the flying, working, singing and dancing continue throughout the spring and summer.

 

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