I have enjoyed several outdoor experiences tucked between rain showers in the past week. Each had one thing in common. I was at the right place at the right time. The primary factor was luck, rather than any particular skill or knowledge.
A hunting buddy of many years and I scanned a valley cornfield in the Loess Hills State Forest with binoculars from a ridge road at its north end on April 14, and were surprised to see not a single wild turkey feeding there. It’s the largest cornfield in that area and we reasoned that it would be a primary feeding destination for any turkeys in the area. We had seen turkeys, including strutting toms (adult male turkeys) in other cornfields we’d driven by, but most of those were private land and not accessible to us.
Our half-mile hike into the valley cornfield in the cold, dark, early morning of April 15 was based on faith that turkeys would be there, even though we hadn’t seen any. We set several decoys on rise in a grassy buffer between the corn and the edge of the woods, eased back into the brush and waited patiently for dawn. Ghostlike gray deer still in their winter coats fed several hundred yards away in the early light. We heard several distant turkey gobbles in brief moments when the strong wind died enough that we could hear anything. A lone hen turkey came out of the woods at sunrise several hundred yards away and began to feed. We enjoyed watching her chase a crow that landed a little to close to her. A lone tom turkey finally emerged from the woods at about 7 a.m. on our side of the field about 200 yards away. Obviously interested in the live hen, he went into his strut, and gobbled once. We called to him, hoping that he’d see our decoys, too, but he stubbornly stood silently in place in his full strut pose for several minutes. Then, ever so slowly, he began strutting in our direction. It took him a half hour to cover that 200 yards, and at about 7:30, I was able to bag my first-ever spring turkey. My buddy bagged his from a pair of toms that literally ran to our decoys about 9 a.m. Other toms were gobbling in the area, but members of our hunting party hunted the same field for two more days without seeing a bird. I guess we were just lucky to be there when we were.
I had an opportunity to hike the trail up the Skunk River from Soper’s Mill on Monday afternoon, April 22. I noted that hepatica were in full bloom on the slopes with their white, blue, and pink blossoms. Bloodroot, spring beauty and false rue anemone were just getting started. I enjoyed seeing and hearing wood ducks on a beautiful oxbow pond tucked back into the timber below the mouth of Bear Creek. It finally had enough water to hold them. I then noticed a small hawk perched on a low branch above the pond. Frustrated to be without binoculars, I slowly stalked toward the hawk, keeping trees between me and the bird when possible. Thankfully, it allowed me to get surprisingly close before flying. I was able to identify it as a red-shouldered hawk, a fairly rare sighting for our area. They’re only a little more common in the big woods of eastern Iowa, but we’re near the western edge of their native range. I consider myself lucky to have been in the woods at the moment this uncommon migrant was moving through.
Back in the truck on my way home, I spotted a large hawk perched in a tree by the I-35 overpass bridge east of Soper’s Mill. Ninety-nine out of 100 large hawks perched near the interstate will be red-tails, but this bird allowed me to approach closely enough to identify it as a Swainson’s hawk. These large hawks appear occasionally in our area during migration, but we’re east of their native range. Again, I was just lucky to pass by the spot where I could see this unusual migrant.
Some friends were over Saturday evening and spotted some birds under bushes in our back yard. Close inspection revealed a pair of eastern towhees, beautiful black-backed, chestnut-sided birds more typically found in larger eastern woodlands. They stayed only a few minutes. We were just lucky to look outside when we did.
This weekend would be a great time to hit the trails if you’d like to see some wildflowers or migrating birds. You never know what surprises might await. Great flower displays should be available above Soper’s Mill, at McFarland Park, and at Hertz Woods and Robison Wildlife Acres south of Nevada.
(Steve Lekwa is retired Story County Conservation director.)