Just add water — birds will come

MIGRATION is an unstoppable happening. Waterfowl have been flying south in the fall for eons of time. Likewise over those same eons their urge to return to nesting grounds makes them fly northward toward arctic homes. For people on the ground anywhere along the route from the Gulf Coast and into Canada, one cannot help but look up at huge V-forms of waterfowl winging their way toward a place to call home for the summer.

The combination of recent ice breakup of the Iowa River caused flooding of area fields adjacent to the river. Water was everywhere it seemed. And the geese and ducks enjoyed those temporary wetlands, using them as a brief stopover to rest and feed. Who would have guessed, or been able to predict, that the Marshalltown Convention and Visitors Bureau would host one hundred thousand new weekend guests without trumpets blaring the news of this mega convention? Truth is the CVB did not have to lift a finger to pull off this event. Mother Nature did it for them. One thing that did impact the economy in a small way were the number of wildlife enthusiasts out and about in their vehicles, spotting scopes, binoculars and long range camera lenses in tow. As for this scribe, I put an extra tank of fuel in my truck due to my mini-safari of goose and duck sighting tours of the back roads of Marshall County. Safari is a great term to use. It is an East African swahili word meaning travel.

By midweek, cold weather had returned, flood waters had receded, and a lot of the geese had move further north. However, a good sampling of Canada Geese, Snow geese and White-fronts were still holding out at the waters of Sand Lake east of Marshalltown. Adding to the mix of waterfowl were ducks: Scaup, Redheads, Canvasback, Mallards and Pintails. The migration of waterfowl is not over. Hopefully there will additional pushes when warmer air and south winds return. My advice to ardent readers of this column is to keep looking up, and listening, to the sounds of wind rushing through the wings of waterfowl. Enjoy.

GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE (Anser albifrons) are not the type of resident goose we are likely to see all summer. This bird is merely a traveler to the far northern arctic regions of Canada and Alaska. Their breeding area is the tundra of Nunavut to Siberia, across northern Russia and Greenland. White-fronts have one of the largest ranges of any species of goose in the world. In North America, however, the white-front is common only west of the Mississippi River. This medium sized goose has a gray-brown body with a black speckling to its chest, thus the nick name speckle-belly. Its feet are a bright orange to pink color. A white patch covers its forehead at the base of the bill. Bonds between mated pairs and their brood from last year are stronger than many other species. Last year’s young are likely companions on this year’s northward migrations. Survival of this species is pretty well assured. It starts out in great body condition from its Gulf Coast hangouts of Louisiana, Texas and Mexico where rice fields provide plenty of seeds to glean from agricultural fields. They will also eat grasses, forage in shallow water for other morsels, and eat seeds or berries. At the nesting grounds, White-fronts will have nests of up to eight eggs. Once hatched, the young leave the nest the next day. Young have the ability to swim and feed from day one. To see a mounted specimen of the Greater White-front goose, visit with Mike Stegmann at the Conservation Center. He will be happy to add to your waterfowl knowledge anytime.

Here is a bit of IOWA RIVER trivia for you regarding last week’s ice out. The river was cruising along at about 11 feet on the gauge. Then the weather brought rain, one inch of the wet stuff. The snow pack shrank and began to melt. Streams became swollen and soon the river had to feel those effects. The river crested the first time on March 12 at 2 p.m. with a reading of 17.38 feet. Many areas of the river still had ice locked up and not moving although the inevitable weakening of the ice was silently taking place. The river level made a slow decline for the next several days until the March 16. While most of us were sleeping, at 2 a.m., the river rose abruptly due to ice out. A new crest at the gauge happened with readings of 17.41 feet (8,260 cubic feet per second flow rate). Water spilled out of the banks to flood adjacent low lands. Large ice chunks were pushed outside the river’s bank. The extra temporary water was just what migrating waterfowl would need before the weekend. The river has retreated steadily since then. It is now flowing at about one-eighth its rate of only a few days ago.

Ice out means a new kind of feeding frenzy. This time is involves CHANNEL CATFISH who are starved and ready to eat like a teenager. Fish that died during last winter are the top of the list for scavenging catfish. With a new found food source, catfish will feed fast and furious. Fishermen will have success using the stinkiest, smelliest stuff that will stick to a hook. At places such as Coralville Reservoir each spring, anglers may be shoulder to shoulder working to catch their limit of 15 fish in a few hours. For river fishermen, check out areas below dams or low head dams or at the mouth of tributaries. Find slack water or the backside of a point where wind may blow dead shad into the area. It is these water areas that are warming the fastest, thus the reason catfish may be hanging out in these places. Hint: Disposable gloves are a great way to keep stink bait off the skin of your fingers. If not, then this phrase applies … Old catfishermen never die, they just smell that way.

More than 8,000 Iowa taxpayers helped wildlife conservation last year by making donations to the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund on their tax form. It is hoped that at least that same number, or more, will make a donation this year. Last year those donations amounted to $132,000. The amount had been as high as $200,000 several years ago but due to more and more electronic filings, the rate of donations slipped off. You and I can change that. Do not forget to make a contribution to the “Chickadee Checkoff this year. Thanks.

Iowans lost a friend this past week. The owner, operator, manufacturer and patent holder for Knight Rifles passed away on March 18 at a Des Moines hospital. Tony Knight held a patent on improved versions of muzzle loader rifles. His work garnered him the title of “father of in-line muzzle loading.” Tony Knight will be laid to rest in Martinstown, Mo.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.