On October 10, 2015, 16 young birders and parents enjoyed a crisp fall morning at Harrier Marsh near Ogden, Iowa. In the midst of fall sparrow migration, our targets were two of the smallest sparrows inhabiting wet grasslands; the Le Conte’s Sparrow and the Nelson’s Sparrow. The wind was starting to pick up, which would make our search more difficult, but excitement filled the air as the young birders anticipated a couple new birds for the life list.
As we arrived at the Marsh, we immediately located three Pied-billed Grebes diving on a nearby wetland. We stopped for a quick look before beginning our sparrow hunt. We started down the gravel road that splits the marsh in half and were not seeing much for action, so we decided to venture off road and into the prairie. After about five minutes of walking through the prairie, we flushed a small, light-colored sparrow that immediately dove back into the grasses. Someone called out that they thought it was one of our target species. So, we recruited the help of the parents to help track down the illusive bird and flush it towards the young birders. After several attempts, we still were not able to get good looks at the bird but knew at this point it was a Le Conte’s Sparrow. On the last attempt, parents and young birders slowly crept to the location where the bird was last seen. As we closed in, hoping the bird would pop up, a friendly hunting dog surprised us and came to the assistance. The dog ran to the sparrow spot and flushed the bird. The dapper little orange-faced bird sat in the open for what seemed like an eternity, offering great looks for all the young birders. One of our young birders, Noelle Wagner, was even able to get a stunning photo of the bird (shown in the slideshow). After this experience, we decided it was necessary to recruit an official Iowa Young Birders dog!
We continued on our sparrow hunt into the marsh. If there’s one thing we were all reminded of on this trip, it was that looking for fall sparrows is challenging! However, persistence often pays off as in the case of the Le Conte’ Sparrow. Near the edge of one of the wetland basins, a young birder spotted a small bird perched on a blade of grass swaying in the wind. He immediately thought it was a wren, and after some observation and discussion of the characteristics, decided it was a Marsh Wren. This was an exciting find for many of the young birders.
We finished our morning walking the property boundary along a grassland and cropland edge. This proved to be an excellent spot for sparrows, and we continued to flush several Song and Swamp Sparrows as well as an occasional Savannah Sparrow. We also observed an American Kestrel hunting the adjacent crop field as well as a couple of Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures riding high on the wind.
After our morning of birding, we met for lunch and discussion of future field trips at the Ogden Public Library. Young birders were provided the opportunity not only to suggest ideas for future field trips, but also to aid in planning the trips they suggested by selecting a time of year and location. The young birders broke out in groups and were given two tasks. The first task was to think of 2-3 themes for future field trips, such as a hawk watch or an owl prowl. The second task was to dream big! In other words, if Iowa Young Birders was to take another long trip, where would you want to go? How fun it was to hear both the creative and important ideas from the young birders! Not only were they suggesting trips to target certain birds, but they were also suggesting trips to improve their identification skills (e.g., ID workshops) and to increase bird conservation and education (e.g., conservation work days). And the “dream big” ideas were very fun! Florida Everglades for Pink Flamingos, Sax Zim Bog for winter owls, and Arizona for hummingbirds and other southwest specialties. However will we choose?
A big thanks to the parents for chauffeuring the young birders to this event and to the young birders for their great ideas regarding field trips. The Ogden Public Library was gracious to let us stick around after hours. And lastly, thanks to Noelle Wagner for sharing her photo of the Le Conte’s Sparrow for our slideshow and to Walt Wagner-Hecht for keeping our trip list and notes during our afternoon discussion.