The April showers (actually heavy rains) that fell last night were a little late, but still welcome. It would have been nice to see them earlier in the month when they would have filled area wetlands in time to support the spring waterfowl migration a little better, and perhaps spaced out a little more. The 3.5 inches that our area received on Sunday, April 27, came too fast for the soil to take it all in. A good deal of the rain was forced to run over the ground instead of into it. Excess runoff found many local fields freshly tilled and vulnerable to the erosion that moving water causes. The risk of erosion will not decrease until plants again cover the soil to provide some protection from the impact of heavy rains.
The waterfowl migration is over, but wetlands that last night’s rain filled will be attractive to blue-winged teal, mallards, wood ducks, and Canada geese that remain here to raise their young. Goose nests should be hatching within the next week or so, but this year’s late ice-out may have delayed the start of nesting by a few days. Shore birds like sandpipers and plovers are migrating as I write this morning, but they never stay long. Many species move through Iowa on their way to Arctic breeding areas, and sharp-eyed birders can sometimes pick up some most unusual sightings of these difficult-to-identify species. Look for them, as their name suggests, around the edges of lakes and ponds. Most stay out in the open, away from woodlands. Even temporary ponds in crop fields are attractive to them. Some species feed exclusively in shallow water while others stay on the moist soil and shorter vegetation near the water’s edge.
The songbird migration will will be active for the next several weeks. New species will be arriving almost daily, but some, like the shore birds, spend only a few days of their long journey here. True sparrows are moving this week and may put in brief appearances around bird feeders. Look closely for these elusive strangers with the ground-feeding flock of English sparrows that was likely with you all winter. I love to see and hear the beautiful white-throated sparrows that sport a bright yellow patch between their eye and bill. I won’t get to see them again until I return to my beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area later this summer. They’re often joined by Arctic-nesting white-crowned sparrows, with striking white stripes on their heads, and black-faced Harris sparrows. A single streaky breasted Lincoln sparrow was scratching for spilled seed under one of my feeders yesterday. Many other species of sparrows pass through Iowa, but only a few stay to breed here.
The first warbler to be seen is almost always a yellow-rumped warbler, and I saw my first one on April 27. Like the sparrows, many species will pass through Iowa, but only a few stay to breed. Watch the trees for movement as these lively and colorful forest gems glean tiny insects and spiders from expanding buds and cracks in the bark. Leave yourself a little extra time on your next walk so that you can look both up and down. Warblers make a lovely addition to a walk among the wildflowers on almost any woodland trail. They can often be seen in urban areas where there are larger trees, as well. A pair of binoculars will be useful to pick out the colors, since warblers are often silhouetted against a bright sky as you look up through the still-budding branches. Like woodland wildflowers, the warblers, too, will be gone by the time trees reach full leaf.
There is much to do that can only be done in these few delightful weeks that we enjoy as spring. My sugar snap peas were planted last week, but many more garden crops will follow as the soil warms. There’s still CRP prairie to burn at my father-in-law’s farm in northern Iowa, if a break in a rainy forecast and available crew can be put together at the same time. I hate to burn much past the first week of May because too many nests will be lost. There’s still some yard work to do, and the mower will have to be sharpened and brought out of its winter moth-balled state. I’ll probably tire of it by mid summer, but I actually enjoy mowing the new grass that these April showers are sure to bring on at a rapid rate.
(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.)