May 2019

A phenology year - blink and you missed something!

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

What we have seen this past month

I hope you didn’t blink during the month of April. Seems as though there is so much happening in our natural world, that it is exhausting just to watch. This is the picture of life that I wish to part of - these indicators of a healthy earth. The smells and the sounds are enough to get you going on a treasure hunt.

April weather has been somewhat cool. The spring wildflowers seemed to have waited a bit before showing their colors in one big burst. The snow trillium bloomed and stay longer than normal because of the cooler temperatures. The blooms persisting was good for the many woodland birds moving through that rely on insects for food. The birds were seen consistently going from flower to flower to find many insects for a nourishing meal.

First the snow trillium bloomed followed by Dutchman’s breeches. The end of April brought bloodroot, spring beauties, toothwort, trout lily, bellwort, purple and yellow violets, rue anemone, sweet william or phlox, Virginia bluebells, jacob’s ladder, and wild ginger. Pennsylvania sedge has also bloomed throughout some of our woodlands.

In the woodlands that encompass Lake Red Rock and cliff edges rue anemone, pussytoes, serviceberry, and the wild redbud trees have bloomed.

The little known migration of the common green darner, was first noted at the beginning of April. Queen bumblebees, honeybees, small bees, flower flies, bee flies, and butterflies have all been feeding upon the newfound nectar. This feeding helps with pollination. The coloration, flight, and determination of these insects are very interesting to watch. Butterflies spotted in the area include red admirals, painted ladies, mourning cloaks, commas, question marks, a few cabbage whites, black swallowtails, and, currently, the rarer finds of Henry’s elfin butterflies.

Bird migration has brought in a list that would probably take up six pages, but here are a few that come to mind… numerous yellow-rumped warblers came in on a very windy day in early April, followed by golden-crowned and ruby-crowned Kinglets. A partial list of sparrows that have arrived include, fox, field, song, Harris’, swamp, white-crowned, and chipping. Common grackles, cowbirds, rusty blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and brown thrasher have also migrated to summer breeding territory. The lovely and welcomed purple martins have made their return, as have cliff swallows, tree swallows, and barn swallows. A farmer friend noted that the sight of the first barn swallow meant that corn could be planted now. Earlier in April, the great blue herons returned to their rookeries. Marion County has one of the largest heron rookeries east of the Mississippi

The most common pond turtles, painted and snapping, have been sunning on logs in our local ponds and wetlands. Turtles move a lot this time of year from pond to pond and newly hatched painted turtles have been seen. The chorus frogs have continued their musical calls, as well as spring peepers, leopard frogs, cricket frogs, and bullfrogs. So far, eggs from chorus frogs, spring peepers and the leopard frogs have been discovered.

Red-sided garter snake, northern water snake, and a hognose snake (which is rare in the county and state) have been seen soaking up the sun on the woodland floor and roadways. Locally, other snakes that we might see include are prairie ringneck, deKays Brown, bull, fox, rat, milk, and more.

We have seen the Pink Moon on April 19. Such a beautiful full moon, it was named after pink ground phlox as it was the first to bloom in North America. It is also known as the egg moon, sprouting grass moon, and fish moon.

A closer look at something from the previous month

The common green darner is an amazingly beautiful dragonfly. Dragonflies are the very first winged insects to evolve over 300 million years ago. Our “modern” dragons have wingspans of two to five inches, but the fossilized dragonflies have shown wingspans of up to two feet.

Did you know some species of dragonflies migrate just like our birds do? The common green darner is one that has returned already to Iowa. Although, we do have common green darner residents of the area that do not migrate. Common green darners breed in the north over the spring and summer months. The nymphs spend the winter in our wetlands and ponds beneath a thick layer of ice. In spring, the nymphs emerge and spend the summer as adults.

The migratory common green darner groups move south in the fall and north in the spring. The migratory darners’ young emerge from local waters in late summer of the same year/season. It is an incredible sight to be among the swarms of these beautiful dragons. The darner migration is still somewhat of a mystery. The darner’s annual migrations is being somewhat compared to the monarch migrations taking three generations to make up the annual migration.

This Science News link is an interesting read about the darner migration. The article notes that the first generation emerges in the southern U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean. The darners begin flying around the month of February and flies north. Those insects lay eggs and die, giving rise to the second generation that migrates south through late October. Many of the second generations do not fly south until the next year, after overwintering as nymphs. A third generation, hatched in the south, overwinters there before laying eggs that will start the entire process over again. This article is complete with maps and information that will only add to the mystery.

What we are expecting to see next month?

Remember “April showers, brings May flowers?” May will be a busy month for all, especially as we begin to spend more time outside. Hopefully the showers will bring up more earthworms and nightcrawlers. It’s always fun to see them during spring rains.

May will be a great month to visit the wetlands! So much to see and hear. Wetlands are unique and hold a grande amount of insects, wildlife, and birds. If you have a chance, check out all the cool things under the water - you might be amazed.

Monarchs should be heading our way from their trek from Mexico. Be sure to watch the milkweed coming up to look for eggs being laid on their northern return. The monarch season truly begins in the spring to prepare for the fall migration.

Also remember to keep track of the Poweshiek skipper migration forecast!

We’ll be looking forward to multitudes of dragonflies and damselflies this month. They are as much fun to find and learn about as birds! I highly encourage a walk around a wetland or near water and see if you can spot dragons and damsels. Do you need to know their names? Heck NO! But, they are amazing to watch and see so many different colors and patterns. Those predators will be on the wing, eating up thousands of mosquitoes and bugs. Dragons and damsels are always a great citizen science project if you have the time and desire. You can find your county checklist and learn more at Iowa Odonata Survey.

For mammals, the beaver kits will be out and about with mom. Coyote pups should be exploring. The deer will begin having their fawns. Don’t forget to leave the babies alone! Their mothers are the best mothers ever! As a reminder, it is normal for mother deer to leave their fawns up to 8 hours a day to forage and nourish themselves. The young fawns are unable to keep up with the adults and are less likely to encounter predators if they stay hidden. Their fur coats are dappled like the sunshine through the grasses. Parents of small animals are watching, but will not come if you are constantly there.

Some of our bats (winged mammals) will be returning from migration, and our resident bats have already been working at insect reduction.

Hummingbirds and orioles should be moving in heavily the very end of April into May here in Marion County. Time to get those oranges, grape jelly, and nectar out. If you have forgotten the nectar recipe, here is the best one.

If you purchase nectar, please do not use the red dye. It is an additive that is unnecessary and is not healthy or beneficial for those little birds. Blackbirds will be nesting, bobolinks will be arriving from Argentina, red-tailed hawks will have hatchlings soon. The whippoorwills, nighthawks, chimney swifts and other insect eaters should be arriving to the area. Other colorful birds coming in from migration will be the scarlet tanagers, orchard orioles, American redstarts, rose-breasted grosbeaks, yellow warblers and numerous other warblers should be heard and hopefully seen.


  • This will be a good month to see fireflies.

  • The Flower Moon will be May’s full moon on May 18, 2019.

  • Turkeys will be on their nests and pheasant young should be hatching.

Spring is moving fast, so, don’t blink. There are way to many happenings for one to keep up with, but sure is fun to give it a try. Have fun, be safe, and meet your backyard plants and animals.

An activity to try!

Have you taken your children birding? Here are some suggestions from our friends at the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition!

Phenology happenings in Marion County, Iowa

As we notice the things in nature that are changing, we'll be adding to this calendar.

Each week a new photo of the woodland creek and the wolf tree will be added to each album! Both of these locations are within Cordova Park. This park is managed by Marion County Conservation.