Jane took me to Martin's Access in Cherokee County Sunday evening. Situated along the banks of the Little Sioux, the park has hilly areas with dense stands of mature hardwoods and open meadows. Jane rides her horse there, but it was my first visit. We saw several deer, including a huge buck, and lots of birds.
Besides the usual suspects, we saw yellow-billed cuckoos, common yellow throats, indigo buntings, and hummingbirds. But the highlight of the trip was a vocal appearance of a scarlet tanager, giving its unmistakable alarm call, "chick-burr."
Mosquitoes are rare in our yard, but that might be because they all flew to Martin's Access. In the dank, cool woods, we were constantly surrounded by them, so bring DEET if you go there. Some of the trails have waist-high weeds, which undoubtedly have ticks and chiggers in them. We opted not to walk those trails because we weren't wearing pants treated with permethrin. Next time I will.
"Starlings are no darlings" - Cavity nesters are birds that build their nests in hollow trees, and the group includes such cool Storm Lake residents as white breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, and blue birds. I guess the birds are able to survive the winters in Iowa because of the insulation provided by the tree.
Unfortunately for these cool birds, European starlings are also cavity nesters. Starlings are categorized as 'invasive species' which means they ain't from around here, and they hurt things that are from around here.
A fellow named Eugene Schieffelin thought it would be fun to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays into America from England, so he released 100 starlings into New York's Central Park between 1890 and 1891. Those hundred birds have spawned into a horde of more than three million today. Bad move, Eugene.
Three times a day, I walk my dogs along Lakeshore Drive. The road is lined with mature maple trees, walnuts, ashes, and others. Lots of those trees have holes in the limbs, perfectly situated to accommodate any of the cool birds I mentioned above. But each and every hole is occupied by a family of starlings. They breed like crazy, I see young ones in early April, and I think they are still going at it here in mid-July. You have to wonder how many woodpeckers and nuthatches would be in our city, were it not for the starling invasion.
Starlings are iridescent black, flecked with pale spots. They make a variety of noises, some of which could be considered songs. But mostly, large groups of them join together to produce a constant wave of grating squeaks, croaks and rattles, sounding a lot like rats to me.
If you put out bird feeders, once they find it, starlings will take it over and eat everything before the cool birds get a chance. Sunflower seeds are the best seeds to feed birds, but most people opt for the cheaper mixes that include millet because the gluttony of the starlings and house sparrows makes sunflower seeds too expensive and frustrating to put out.
Early one morning in March, soon after the lake ice had melted, I saw a mink hopping along the rocky shoreline at Scout Park. When it got close to the lighthouse, a group of starlings flew down from the trees and started pecking at the mink! Being big weasels, minks are renowned for their scrappyness in a fight, and their carnivorous diet. I kept waiting, and hoping the mink would rear up and snag one of his tormentors out of the sky, but this one got his butt thoroughly whipped by the starlings before hastily retreating to the shelter of the rocks. The poor thing's life had descended into an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Sometimes things work out, though. I was walking the dogs in Sunset Park last spring, when I heard the song of the broad-winged hawk, a 'chip' followed by a long whistle. I scanned the trees where the song came from and saw the hawk with a starling clutched in it's talons, surrounded by a heckling mob of starlings. We need more broad-winged hawks.
Common Nighthawk - (or was it a tiny jet airplane?)
Speaking of cool birds, I finally heard one of the neatest sounds in nature Monday evening as Jane and I sat on the front porch. The common nighthawk is a large bird- about the size of a pigeon - with long thin, back-swept wings, marked with a distinct white bar near the tip. They are fairly common in the summer, and they have a raspy call like a purple martin's but longer and raspier.
They make another sound that is truly amazing. As they dive toward the ground, the males bend their wings to make air rustle through the feathers, creating a loud "zoom" sound. I had read about the noise in books, and I saw a nighthawk performing the dive at the golf course, but it was too high in the air for me to hear. I have been watching and studying birds for decades, but hearing the zoom of a nighthawk was a first for me. Storm Lake is great.