It was a cool and dreary morning, but that wasn’t going to stop six young birders and their parents and grandparents from birding Lake Manawa State Park near Council Bluffs as part of our joint field trip with the Omaha Youth Birding Group. The birding started off a bit slow but quickly picked up throughout the morning.
After meeting briefly at 8:45 AM to organize, we headed straight for the 772-acre lake that gives Lake Manawa State Park its name. There was a Red-throated Loon spotted at the lake the previous week and we were all anxious to see if the bird was still around (unfortunately, it wasn't). We first scoped the water from a vantage point on the southernmost tip of the lake and were unable to find much of any waterbirds. We did, however, have a handful of Ring-billed Gulls fly over. We knew there was a large raft (a tightly-packed group of ducks or gulls resembling a “raft” on the water) of ducks further up on the lake, so we decided to re-locate for a better look. But, before doing so, we had the unique opportunity to view and learn about American Kestrels up close thanks to Tad Leeper and Linda Dennis from Fontenelle Forest Nature Center and their captive American Kestrels. Both birds are injured and, as a result, are not suited to living in the wild, so they are used for educational purposes. What a neat experience to see these birds up close!
Once re-located, we exited our cars in the parking lot and walked toward the lake. A small raptor flew into view and landed in a tree approximately 75 yards from where we were standing. Our immediate reaction was perhaps a Cooper’s or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Upon closer inspection, we realized it was a Merlin! We quickly set three spotting scopes on the bird and all young birders and their parents and grandparents received great looks of this cooperative bird, which just happened to be dining on a small, unidentified songbird. Even some of the more experienced trip leaders were enjoying the unique close-up of this neat little falcon. This was likely the best bird of the day, and a life bird for many of the young birders. From this point, we also observed Double-crested Cormorants roosting in a distant tree and were able to determine that most of the ducks in the large raft were Gadwall.
Next, we relocated to “Boy Scout Island”, a small peninsula on the northern tip of the lake in attempts of again getting a better look at the large group of ducks. Distant looks created a challenge once again, but we received nice looks through the spotting scope at a small group of Ruddy Ducks near the observation platform. Some of the trip leaders explained the identifying characteristics of a Ruddy Duck, including their small body size overall and their stiff tails pointing upward.
Our plan was to finish the day viewing the water from the beach near the campground, but we were intercepted by local birder Clem Klaphake who escorted us to a phenomenal spot for sparrows. Harris’s Sparrows were erupting from the brush in incredible numbers, and many of the young birders were able to get quality views of this species. We heard several White-throated Sparrows singing from the brush, and even an uncommon Spotted Towhee emerged for a quick glimpse before going into hiding. One of the young birders, Sam Manning, found a couple of Pine Siskins with a group of American Goldfinches. What an excellent end to a fun trip.Many thanks to Bob Wells and our friends with the Omaha Youth Birding Group for showing us a great time in western Iowa. And as always, thanks to the parents and grandparents for chauffeuring the young birders to Lake Manawa for a Saturday morning of birding with friends.