Trumpeter swans at Union Slough NWR.

Trumpeter swans at Union Slough NWR.

When you get on to I-55 in Chicago, the sign says your headed to St. Louis. On I-80 near Iowa City, east is designated as towards Chicago. Algona, Iowa does not appear on signs until Humboldt, 20 miles away. Algona was the destination of this year’s Iowa Ornithologists Union spring meeting where I was presenting the keynote talk. Denny Thompson had made the arrangements on my behalf and the venue where the meeting was being held is the lovely Waters Edge Nature Center, only a few minutes out of town. The movie was screened the Friday night I arrived, while the first half of Saturday was devoted to field trips.

Yellow-headed blackbird (photo by John Cassady)

Yellow-headed blackbird (photo by John Cassady)

The field trip I opted for focused on Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge. The site is 3,334 acres and comprises both upland, marsh, and open water. Formerly a pre-glacial river bed, the slough was subjected to only partially successful efforts to drain it through the construction of dams and levees. Both the Blue Earth River and the east fork of the Des Moines RIver come together here and it is this connection that led to the name Union Slough. According to the refuge web-site, “Native Americans called this area Mini Akapan Kaduza, meaning ‘water which runs both ways’ ”. Because of the refuge’s narrow configuration, wildlife could be easily disturbed by heavy visitation so the property is generally closed to the public. The field trip, therefore, was a rare opportunity to access the site and the field trip drew a large crowd. I was fortunate to be able to ride with Richard Sayles and Cathy Conrad from the Dubuque area. This may sound like a broken record but the birding was terrific, but the pleasure was enhanced deeply by some people I most certainly hope to stay in touch with.

Union Slough country.

Union Slough country.

Large hemme marshes rich with conservative breeding birds, are at best, rare in the Chicago region. Years of research has shown that, for reasons I am not totally clear, many marshes lose their moorhens, black terns, yellow-headed blackbirds, least bitterns, and other, what I am calling, conservative species over time. Many sites are at their peak soon after initial inundation. Lake County, Illinois now has a single place that still hosts yellow-headed blackbirds and that is private property. As our caravan neared the refuge, we pulled off to bird some stunning big marshes. Two of my favorite sounds of nature are singing yellow-headed blackbirds and the unk-a-chunk of American bitterns. The voice of the yellow-head is not really pretty but is so evocative of the marshlands I enjoy and, of course, is definitive evidence that one of my favorite birds is nearby. I note again the scientific name of the species, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, meaning “yellow-head yellow-head.” If you didn’t know ahead of time, the origin of the bittern’s call would be almost unimaginable. And not only did we hear the bittern, he obligingly performed while elevated on a musk rat house deep in the marsh, thereby allowing us to watch as well. Throw in the sounds of a Virginia rail and the cavorting of black terns overhead, and this was a compilation of the marsh birds I so dearly miss.

Black tern.

Black tern.

Trumpeter swans also inhabit these Iowa marshes in much larger numbers than they do farther east. Two swans gracefully alit on the open water and commenced to peacefully swim, occasionally tipping downward in search of forage. But soon after their arrival, they were met by a single bird coming out of the vegetation, in a presumed effort to keep the interlopers from getting too close to the nest that its mate was protecting. Since I obtained my camera last year, I have also developed affection for photogenic birds and there is nothing like huge white birds slowly flapping low overhead to provide can’t miss opportunities for the budding photographer. The day’s list yielded a bunch of other neat birds. Steve Dinsmore, an ecologist from Iowa State U. whom I had never met before but knew of, heard a great-tailed grackle calling. (James Dinsmore, Steve’s dad, was also on the faculty at ISU for a long time and wrote the state’s great volume on historical natural history, A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa) We all wound up with very good looks at the bird. I had no idea they were regular in Iowa, given their rarity in the state to the east. Another unexpected species was a neotropic cormorant. A small row of trees produced several warblers and an alder flycatcher.

Burr oaks at Union Slough.

Burr oaks at Union Slough.

I took a break in the afternoon and returned to the IOU meeting where organizational topics were being discussed. They have just upgraded their web-site and are in the process of other innovations. Iowa birders should feel good. I sure did.

Trumpeter swans at Union Slough NWR.

Trumpeter swans at Union Slough NWR.

 

Field trip.

Field trip.

 

American toad at Union Slough.

American toad at Union Slough.

2 Comments to “Algona and the Iowa Ornithologists Union”

  1. Tyler Harms says:

    The Yellow-headed Blackbird is one of my favorite marsh sounds as well Joel! Thanks for spending your Memorial Day weekend with us! It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope we can stay in touch!

    Tyler Harms

  2. Jacob Newton says:

    I loved the talk you gave at the meeting, Joel. The Trumpeter Swan populations in North Central Iowa represent an amazingly successful program of re-introduction conducted by private-public partnerships with the Iowa DNR and private land holders, as well as smaller groups that over the course of about two decades brought the Trumpeter Swan from virtually extirpated from the state to a self-sustaining breeding population.

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