A rainy, windy, and cool forecast didn’t stop 7 young birders, parents, and grandparents from gathering at Stephens State Forest in southern Iowa on May 18, 2019 for a couple days of birding as part of our Nightjar and Warbler Weekend. The name of the field trip hints to our goals for the weekend – any migrating warblers we could find, a chance to hear both Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow, two species of nightjars known to be regularly heard at the Forest, and other forest birds we could stumble upon in the process. Before heading out in our rain coats, we learned a bit about the history of the 15,000-acre forest in which we were parked (currently the largest of the state forests in Iowa), including how the Forest contributed to the re-introduction of Wild Turkeys to Iowa. The lesson was brief, however, because the skies were threatening rain and we wanted to get as much birding in as possible before the shower!
We started Saturday afternoon in the Lucas Unit of the Forest with our hopes for a Scarlet Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and warblers. We heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo singing from a distance shortly after exiting the cars, but hoped to hear it better as we continued on our hike. We also heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing distant in the woods, a first of 2019 for many. A couple vociferous Ovenbirds were singing nearby and Indigo Buntings were vocal from the forest edges, somehow hiding their deep blue bodies among the green foliage. At the end of the trail, a couple American Redstarts were heard singing and later spotted and young birders observed an American Goldfinch in an opening that lead to a meadow. The darkening skies prompted us to head back towards the vehicles, but on the way we saw a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a migrating Wilson’s warbler, and heard a Yellow-throated Warbler singing from the treetops. Back at the cars and still no rain, we decided to continue our hike and it was a rewarding decision. We had great looks at a cooperative pair of Yellow-throated Vireos and heard a Wood Thrush singing its gorgeous song, but the “icing on the cake” was watching a female Scarlet Tanager build a nest concealed in the branches of a hickory tree. The rain ended our afternoon a bit early, but we were all very pleased with the short hike!
Despite an evening full of thunderstorms, our good fortune produced a perfect night to listen for nightjars. We returned to the Lucas Unit at dusk and were not disappointed. After listening for a short couple minutes at our first stop, we heard multiple Eastern Whip-poor-wills singing and even an American Woodcock displaying overhead. After a few more minutes, we heard our first Chuck-will’s-widow singing up the road. And as if this first stop couldn’t get any better, we all watched a nearby Eastern Whip-poor-will land on the side of the road not 20 feet in front of our vehicles! A couple more stops along the road produced at least 5 different Eastern Whip-poor-wills and 3 Chuck-will’s-widows as well as a bonus Barred Owl and an amazing chorus of Eastern Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers.
Expecting the rain to again change our plans on Sunday morning, the sun greeted us briefly as we gathered to travel towards the Whitebreast Unit of Stephens State Forest. The winds picked up once there, however, making the birding a bit challenging. We did add a few new species to our weekend list including Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Swainson’s Thrush. We also had great looks at an Ovenbird (one of many we heard singing again this morning) and saw several Red-eyed Vireos. We completed the morning by clearing hearing another Yellow-billed Cuckoo “kooing” from the trees, a fine finish to a fun weekend.
Many thanks to the young birders, parents, and grandparents didn’t let some rain and sloppy gravel roads keep them from spending a great weekend with us in the Iowa outdoors! You can view photos from our trip here as well as our various species lists from the weekend below:
Saturday afternoon (May 18)
Saturday evening (May 18)
Sunday morning (May 19)