Last week I wrote about birds that I thought I saw, but didn’t. This week I get to share a tale of two birds that I actually saw. Both species are uncommon, but one has become far less common, while the other has become more so.
I hunted pheasants and rabbits on several farms northwest of Story City near what’s now the Bob Pyle Marsh wildlife area when I was in high school. A large area of wetland and grassland near Keigley Creek always held game and lots of other interesting wildlife. The area gave me my first sightings of raptors, like the rough-legged hawk, and what was then called a marsh hawk (now called harriers). The most unusual was the crow-sized short-eared owl, though. I found it unusual because it was the only owl I had seen that hunted in daylight and stayed out in the open country, away from trees. It often perched on the ground and seldom perched higher than a fence post. It usually flew low over the grassland as it flopped along in an almost moth-like fashion.
The short-eared owl has always been a more northern bird, but my first bird book, a Peterson Field Guide published in 1947, described its breeding range as extending south to Iowa and even southern Kansas. Its winter range was well south of Iowa back then. A later “Field Guide to Birds,” published by Golden Press in 1967, showed the bird’s breeding range retreating northward, but still reaching Iowa. Later field guides, like my “Smithsonian Birds of North America” (2002) and “Sibley Field Guide to Birds” (2003) show the breeding range as mostly in Canada and barely touching northern Minnesota. Wintering birds are shown to still wander this far south. I can’t say for sure that the short-eared owls I regularly saw as a boy were breeding here at the time, since I didn’t spend much time out on those farms in the summer. They may have been, though, and almost certainly did in the past. The last one I saw (until last week) was over 40 years ago. Warmer temperatures and less grassland are likely reasons for the owl’s retreat northward. The one I was lucky enough to see recently was flying over a cornfield a couple of miles east of McFarland Park.
The other unusual bird I recently saw grabbed a peanut at our bird feeder and quickly flew away. It was there long enough to identify as a Carolina wren. As the name suggests, this large wren with a big voice and bold white stripe over the eye is most common in the southeast, where it frequents woodlands, wet brushy areas, farms and even urban yards. My earliest bird book showed its range barely reaching southeast Iowa. I encountered my first one on a summer bike ride through a wooded valley north of Indianola about 20 years ago. We encountered another one on a Christmas Bird Count along Indian Creek in Nevada about 10 years ago, and I’ve seen several since, including one on our most recent Christmas Bird Count (maybe the same bird that visited my feeder?). Carolina wrens have nested in outbuildings on a friend’s farm north of Ames for several years. My newer bird books show that they’re now year-round residents across most of Iowa and are being seen occasionally across Minnesota and all around the Great Lakes. It’s felt that warmer winters have allowed them to expand their range north and west. They’re still not as common as their smaller migratory house wren cousins, but they’re an interesting addition to our local bird life. I sure hope the recent switch to cold and snow doesn’t push them back south and east.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.