The fall season is one of my favorites of the entire year. Although it’s near 90 degrees as I write this Saturday afternoon, cooler weather will soon be here (I hope). Tomorrow is the last day of the early teal-only duck season, but I’ve had trouble getting very enthused about going out. A few teal are around, but they’re mostly scattered on the many shallow flooded field ponds left over from the heavy rains that swept our area a week ago. Not only that, but those same rains triggered one of the biggest mosquito hatches we’ve had in years!
I took my little fishing boat out on Hendrickson Marsh northeast of Collins to look for birds and find possible hunting spots earlier this week. It was late morning and already getting pretty warm. I figured that I wouldn’t disturb many hunters or ducks at that time of day. In fact, no one else was there. The three to four foot depths I found throughout the area would allow safe wading with chest waders, except that very few areas had a firm bottom. A person attempting to wade on that soft mud bottom would easily sink an extra foot or more. Walking in such conditions is difficult even in shallow water, and getting stuck in deeper water could be quite dangerous. Extricating oneself from deep mud can be nearly impossible without help, and I’m sometimes alone.
I didn’t find many areas that would be safe to hunt for ducks without a good duck dog to make those retrieves (something I don’t have). I did find some interesting birds, though! Hundreds of migrating tree swallows were perched on dead willow branches above the water and sweeping over the water catching insects. Among them was a single brilliant white albino swallow. This striking little creature sat still until I was only fifteen feet away. I sure wish I’d had a camera so I could share that rare beauty, but I’ll carry the image with me for a long time in my mind. Albinos tend not to survive as well as normally colored birds or animals. They stand out to predators. Their eyesight is weaker, and their feathers and fur tend not to be as durable. I hope some other lucky birder can enjoy a flash of pure white in a migrating flock of swallows.
A little later, a lone black-crowned night-heron flushed in front of the boat. This striking black, white and gray heron nests in a few colonies in Iowa, but is seldom seen due to its nocturnal hunting habits. I’ve seen it only one other time in Story County. It’s smaller than the common great blue heron and larger than the little green heron. A flock of about 50 white pelicans glided into the marsh and allowed me a fairly close approach on my way back to the boat ramp. They’re large and clumsy getting airborne, but they’re absolute grace once in the sky. A whole flock can wheel and soar to great altitudes as they migrate. Sometimes a flock will nearly disappear as they soar in circles high above on a clear day; only to reappear as sparkles of white against the blue when the sun glints off their backs.
I avoided mosquito problems that day on the marsh, perhaps with the help of hundreds of bug-eating swallows. A light frost won’t slow the hungry hordes down much, and they are likely to be with us in large numbers until night temperatures reach several degrees below freezing. Some mosquitoes can carry West Nile Virus, a disease that can infect birds and animals, including people. Some folks don’t even know they’ve had it. Others recover without lasting problems. Some cases have led to long-term health problems though, and some will even be fatal. Get medical help when you feel ill, even if you aren’t aware of being bitten. Cover up and use repellants when outdoors until the danger passes later this fall.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.