Color to brighten your winter day

This scribe needed a winter break. Traveling to meet friends and relatives in Arizona and Nevada last week was just the right excuse to drive all the way to Arizona and a few places beyond. The drive was long but worth the effort. New scenery, warmer temperatures, more sun, great people to see and visit which added to the reasons to escape Iowa for a short time. Along the way, this scribe’s camera was busy recording landscapes and wildlife that interested me. And so it is that my spousal unit and I just happened to accidentally on purpose end up for the major part of one day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The museum is an outdoor experience, a botanical garden of 21 acres containing 1,200 kinds of desert plants and 300 animal species that can be observed along its two miles of pathways. This is where today’s photo of a Costa’s Hummingbird was made. And now I get to share the image with you. I hope it brightens your day.

Costa’s are one of 31 species of Hummingbirds. Of those 31, there are 26 species which are known and have been recorded north of the border between Mexico and the United States. One cousin to the Costa is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only species Iowa will likely see this spring on or about April 21 and toward May 7. This the only hummingbird that is common east of the Mississippi River. It’s summer range also includes a wide north-south swipe from eastern Texas all the way into Manitoba, Canada. Winter range for Ruby-throats is Central America.

Costa’s Hummingbirds winter along the southwest coastal areas of Mexico. In spring, they will move north into the peninsula of Baja and areas closer to the U.S. Mexico border. Breeding areas include southern and western Arizona, southern and central California. A few brief documentations have been noted for south coastal Alaska and sometimes east to Texas. However, this is a bird that primarily likes desert environments of the Pacific coastal chaparral, Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

What makes the Costa’s Hummingbird male so conspicuous is its head, throat and long gorget feathers of deep purple to violet. The male can also extend these feathers away from its body to enhance its appearance, not for human enjoyment, but for the sake of attracting female Costa’s. In the bird world, looking pretty to the opposite sex is part of the web of life. And there is a lot of life bundled into this 3.5 inch long bird.

Costa’s and all of its other namesake hummers are pollinators of plants via their feeding techniques while searching for nectar. When we see them, avid birder or casual observer alike, hummingbirds inspire equal fascination from people. The feeding style of hummers is due to the shape and color of familiar flowers such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, fuchsia and even Christmas cactus. The interdependence between the birds and the plants they pollinate have contributed significantly to the structure and composition of the forests, woodlands, deserts and alpine meadows of the Americas. Those same habitats in turn are part of the web of life supporting a great diversity of animals and plants that share these habitats.

Hummingbirds are the miniature “helicopter” of the bird world. There intensely fast wing beats articulate around a complex shoulder muscle and bone arrangement that allows them to fly up, down, backward and forward and even upside down. When our Ruby-throated hummingbirds return this spring, do enjoy them, and then contemplate for a bit the important role they play in plant pollination duties. Nature is full of beauty. Hummingbirds of all species are just one tiny piece of the web of life puzzle.

ROBINS have been seen in this vicinity recently during the severe cold weather of one week ago. Robins are surprisingly hardy as long as they have access to winter food sources of berries and fruits. Robins are facultative migrants. meaning they will migrate only as far south as they need to or are forced to by bad weather or food shortages. The idea that robins are the first true sign of spring is somewhat mythical. In much of northern North America, a few robins overwinter, but they stick to the woods and thickets where they can find fruit and berries. Most backyard bird watchers notice robins’ return with the onset of warmer spring weather as the seek warm-weather foods such as earthworms, grubs, caterpillars and other insects.

One backyard visitor to this scribe’s home was a COOPER’S HAWK. It was doing its natural duty of seeking out, killing and then eating other small birds. A Cooper’s hawk has been a not unexpected avian predator each winter for many years. So when this scribe sees a bundle of feathers under my white pine tree’s branches, I know the silent and swift talons of a Cooper’s has made another kill. Now the trick is to be able to record via my camera a feeding Cooper’s through the magnification of a long lens. It is easier said than done. So I’ll keep trying.

SUPER COLD WEATHER has thickened the ice on area farm ponds and public lakes. Ice fishermen report ice over 20 inches at some sites. An average ice thickness is 17, 18 or 19 inches in this area. An extension to the ice auger may be required. However, thick ice may take longer to melt, or weaken, as the increasingly longer day length will eventually bring warmer air as winter’s grip lessens and spring gains its momentum. The trouble with forecasts during winter is the all too familiar option that Mother Nature pulls out of her sleeve, late snows and blizzard conditions during March. March is a transition month for sure. April is what we look forward to. May is not when we want to see another snow storm like we did in 2013.

Last year late ice off conditions in Wisconsin and Minnesota did not synch well with traditional opening dates for walleye season. Thick ice remained on opening days in many lakes up north. Since the long cold weather in Iowa was bad, it was worse for our neighbors north of us. Time will tell if walleye seasons will be later openers in 2014. All we humanoids can do is adapt, improvise and overcome the obstacles nature throws into our path.

ANTLER MEASURER SEMINAR date is next week, Tuesday Feb. 18, from 7 until 9 p.m. The place is the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm southwest of Marshalltown. Bring a set of old or newly taken deer antlers to see how its symmetry and mass add up to obtain a score. That score is a way to compare the growth of antlers from one deer to another. Since each set of antlers is truly unique, the long time standard Boone and Crocket system of measuring antlered and horned North American big game animals was developed long ago. It is the gold standard methodology used by certified measurers. See you there.

DNR LISTENING SESSIONS regarding fall 2014 hunting and trapping regulations will be held via the ICN network on Wednesday, Feb. 26 from 6 to 9 p.m. For the Marshalltown area and surrounding counties, the location of the ICN site is Iowa Valley Community College, 3702 S. Center St. Usually there are minor adjustments to traditional season dates, limits, and method of take regulations. Sportsmen input into these proposals is part of the regulation setting process before fall 2014 seasons begin. Take note of the time and date and participate.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Putting your phone away and paying attention to those talking to you has a smartphone app. It is called “respect.”

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.