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Naturally Speaking with Steve Lekwa

An insightful and informed view on wildlife and the environment from former Story County Conservation Director Steve Lekwa.

May 22

The Measure of the Hunt

Posted on May 22, 2018 at 8:34 AM by Erica Place

I just returned from several days of hunting wild turkeys in Iowa's magnificent Loess Hills.  The Loess Hills State Forest is composed of over ten thousand state-owned acres of mixed wooded ridges and row-cropped valleys. The small community of Pisgah hosts the state forest office and visitor center, and is more or less at the center of the forest's four management units. The long, often winding, valley-floor fields all have buffers of mixed grasses and legumes between the woods and the cultivated land. Roads are few and traffic noise is far away and seldom heard. Management of the land includes prescribed fire to reduce invasive brush and encourage native prairie that once was the dominant plant community in much of the area. It also has included planting of thousands of native hardwood trees in other areas. The scattered crop fields are rented to local farmers. Some of the crops are deliberately left unharvested for wildlife use. In other words, it's absolutely fantastic wildlife habitat. All the land was purchased from willing sellers using primarily REAP funds. That means that annual property taxes continue to be paid on those acres even though it's now public land.

Iowa's spring wild turkey hunting is divided into four seasons beginning in April and ending in mid May. A hunter may purchase two tags, and only bearded birds may be harvested. Note that I said bearded birds and not male birds (known as toms if mature and jakes if two years or younger). A few hens occasionally sport the unusual growth of modified hair-like feathers that grow from the center of the breast. We actually saw a bearded hen during our hunt. Most people picture a turkey as the fat, broad-beasted bird roasted golden brown for a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. That is what the commercially raised, domestic version of the turkey has become through selective breeding, but the wild bird's anatomy is quite different. A tom may appear broad-breasted when he's all fluffed up in his full strut display, but he can become a sleek and trimmed down bird in a second if he thinks he's been seen. A wild turkey can run or fly though the woods at amazing speed to elude a predator of human hunter. Even though lean compared to their distant domestic relatives, wild turkeys are among the heaviest birds in all nature that are still capable of flight. They use those strong flight muscles not only to escape anything they think might be a danger, but also to fly into the tree tops each night to roost. They're safer up there in wind and weather than they would be on the ground all night.

If our hunt was measured only by the number of birds harvested, then it would not have been successful. The fierce drive to breed that draws toms to decoys and calls had begun to fade this late in the season. A few toms were still strutting, but the bearded birds we saw were usually several hundred yards away. The few distant gobblers we heard were unseen in the ridge-top forests. Thankfully, there's much more to the hunt than the harvest. A friend that I have hunted with for more than 40 years and I saw other wildlife in abundance. That included the usual deer and raccoons, but also foxes, coyotes, and even a badger. The songbirds were almost deafening as orioles, brown thrashers, catbirds, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and eastern towhees serenaded each new day, often from only a few feet away, as we sat quietly hidden in in our camouflaged clothing. Migrating warblers and vireos added flashes of color. Whip-poor-wills and owls dominated the gradually fading darkness before dawn, and coyote families sang several concert pieces from not so far away before retiring from their night of hunting.

I'm not sure my body could take many more days of rising at 3:30 and hunting until near sundown, but it was still hard to leave those glorious spring days in the woods behind. There may not have been a turkey this year, but I'll not soon forget all that was seen and heard. I'm also thankful for the wise use of REAP funding and public land managed for natural values that made the experience possible.

May 14

Spring's Parade Moving Right Along

Posted on May 14, 2018 at 9:40 AM by Erica Place

Could it be only few weeks ago that we were experiencing snow delays and cancellations?  Although it's a bit chilly as I write today's column, we've already experienced days in the 80s and more are forecast in the week ahead. Some parades get so strung out that I tend to get bored waiting for the next float, band, old tractor, or politician to pass by. This spring's parade of new bird and flower arrivals has been anything but strung out. There's been no time to get bored as the parade seems to all be happening at once. Dozens of juncos (winter birds) were fluttering around the yard not long ago. They're all gone, now, and instead my feeders are being swarmed by rose breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, gold finches, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, robins and even a gray catbird.

“My bluebirds” developed a taste for suet a couple of months ago when lingering winter delayed the arrival of insects, their normal food at this time of year. I thought they'd revert to eating insects once the weather warmed. They are hunting insects now, but both the male and female continue to visit the suet feeder several times a day. Both have mastered clinging to the vertical surface just like chickadees as they feed. The robins who built their nest on a platform under the eve of the house have also continued to feed on suet even though plenty of earth worms are available. So does the recently arrived catbird. They haven't mastered clinging, so they hover in front of the feeder and peck at it until some suet breaks loose. I put out a nectar feeder for orioles a couple of weeks ago and was pleased when a few stopped for a drink. They have visited the feeder most springs, but often disappeared after only a few days. I hadn't seen the orioles for a couple of days even though the feeder was still full, so I added a little dish of grape jelly, just to see if that would attract any attention. Wow! All of a sudden, there were six orioles fighting over the jelly. Some even grabbed drinks of sugar nectar at the hummingbird feeder while they impatiently waited their turn at the jelly bar. The robins have taken a liking (become addicted?) to grape jelly as well, and wolf it down in large beak-fulls. I can fill the bowl with a large serving spoon of jelly several times a day and each filling lasts only a couple of hours. Needless to say, I buy the largest, cheapest kind of grape jelly I can get. I worry a bit, though. Am I contributing to a yard full of diabetic birds?

The first families of little wild things have already hatched or been born. Children's books portray Mother Nature as kindly and nurturing. In reality, she's anything but!  She might better be described as headmaster in nature's school of hard knocks. Parent geese are ultra protective of their little goslings, but predators like snapping turtles begin to thin their ranks as soon as they hit the water. Newly laid eggs in hundreds of bird nests face all kinds of threats even before they hatch. Eggs are high quality protein for a variety of other creatures including fox squirrels and blue jays that live around many of our yards. Cowbird parasitism destroys reproduction (except for cowbirds) in many common bird nests like chipping sparrows, cardinals, catbirds, and many more. House wrens and house sparrows destroy the eggs of other cavity nesting species (like my bluebirds) as they try to take over nest sites. Our male bluebird is an old hand, though. He tolerates most of his bird neighbors, but aggressively chases away any wren or house sparrow that gets even close to their nest.  He's even attacked a couple of starlings much larger than himself. I couldn't bring myself to do away with a nest of tiny baby rabbits I found in their fur-lined pocket under a lilac bush even though rabbits have eaten  many of my flowers for years. I found a partially eaten adult rabbit a couple of days later when mowing our grass. I wondered if it might be the mother, and, upon checking, found the rabbit nest torn up and all the babies dead. I couldn't help feeling sorry for them, but know that more rabbit nests with many more babies are close by. I also know that babies that survive will be parenting their own young long before summer is over. Species like mice and rabbits that produce large numbers of young form the food base for the entire ecosystem.

Summer will be upon us in no time.  Dare we hope for a few more golden days to enjoy spring's parade before it's over?

May 07

No Child Left Indoors

Posted on May 7, 2018 at 9:23 AM by Erica Place

New wildflowers and birds are appearing almost daily. Natural events that make up nature's calendar, known as phenology to scientists, may be somewhat compressed this year as Mother Nature tries to make up for lost time. Woodland wildflowers must grow, bloom, and set seed before the tree canopy fills in and captures most of the sunlight. Spring migration, always an urgent affair, will be even more so this year as birds that were held up by lingering winter weather race to their northern nesting areas. My oriole feeder is being visited by orioles hungry for sugar nectar. It's also time to clean, fill, and place hummingbird feeders. My back yard bluebirds laid their first egg on May 3.

We all waited anxiously for weather like this while winter refused release it's grip. It's here, but may not last long before summer comes barreling in. Children usually have a natural love for playing outdoors if they have the chance to experience it – at least before they get their hands on little screens with buttons to push. Those few golden years before digital addiction may be the best, and maybe the only, chance they have to develop a positive relationship with the outdoors and nature. Kids of my generation played outdoors a great deal of the time. Our parents nearly threw us out the door once spring arrived, but today's kids may not experience the wonder of outdoor play unless their adults make sure they have the opportunity.

We are blessed with many fine parks, both urban and rural, around Story County. Many offer trails for hiking, biking, or even pushing a stroller. Some have colorful commercial play-scapes where kids can climb, slide, and swing. A few now offer nature play areas where the “equipment” is composed of rocks, logs, and grassy slopes. McFarland Park northeast of Ames now offers a unique nature play area just east of the conservation center where kids can climb and jump, but also build or even make music with natural objects. The play area is right next to the Touch-A-Life Trail, a paved, fully accessible path where one can get right up close to a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. The bird feeder area at the center is always busy. A family can watch quite a variety of birds from the comfort of the air conditioned lobby, or, better yet, head for the bird blind west of McFarland Park's lake where a family can remain unseen as they watch and listen to birds because there's no glass between the viewer and the bird. New Dakins Lake Park at the north edge of Zearing also has a wonderful nature play area next to the campground.

The key to giving children the gift of wonder and delight in nature rests with whatever caring adults the kids have access to. It matters little if it's a parent, grand parent, or favorite baby sitter. If the trusted adult shows interest and pleasure in nature's many delights, the child will rapidly and enthusiastically follow suit. My generation learned to love the outdoors as we enjoyed hours of unsupervised outdoor play with only occasional encouragement or direction from adults. Today's young children need the conscious effort of caring and nature-loving adults if they are to develop that all-important relationship with nature. Even a yard works. My grandson and I built a couple of Eeyore houses (read Winnie the Pooh) with longer branches we gathered and leaned together in tipi fashion.  I was “put in jail” in one of them for awhile by the “Sheriff of Nottingham”. The adult doesn't need to know what a flower's name is, but they must show delight that the flower is pretty, blue, and smells good. A few flowers even stink, but that, too, is another wonder to marvel at. We shouldn't pick any flowers, but there are plenty more treasures that a kid can find, collect in their pockets, and delight in. Even a short walk or play session outdoors might discover various nuts, pretty rocks, or rocks that make a splash when thrown into a pond or stream. Sticks are fun to follow as they float down a stream. All of you nature-loving adults need to promise that no child that you have a relationship with be left indoors as these all-too-few golden days of spring flash by. Find the child in yourself again and experience the joy and excitement that sharing an outdoor spring day with a child can give!