March 2019

A phenology year - who's ready for March?

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

What we have seen this past month

The month of February brought more sporadic weather events to the Midwest… snow, cold, ice, and rain. The last Wednesday in January wind chill was at an all time low at -50 degrees throughout much of Iowa. Within a four-day period, Iowa temperatures saw a 100 degree temperature swing creating fog, humidity, and a fast melt. Mother Nature has been having a “blast” across the United States.

During the first week of February, the morning songs from winter’s backyard birds have been vocalizing their spring courtship songs, especially the cardinals, blue-jays and chickadees.

The days are getting longer, this is a much needed burst of hope.

The Snow Moon - the best “supermoon” of 2019 occurred on 19 February 2019. Click to see a calendar of all the moon phases for 2019.

Migrating eagles are slowly moving back to their northern territories to prepare for nesting. Older adult pairs will move back earlier in order to maintain their nesting territories. During mid-February 300-500 eagles were spotted and recorded along the Des Moines River below Red Rock Dam.

If you have been watching The Raptor Resource Project Eagle Cam, you are already aware that the first eagle egg at the Decorah North Nest was laid on 21 February 2019 and on 22 February 2019 for the Decorah Eagles nest. Here are links to the live cams at the Decorah North Nest and the Decorah Eagles.

A closer look at something from the previous month

Many are familiar with our Iowa resident owls, especially the great horned owl, the barred owl, the tiny eastern screech owl, and the rarer occurrences of the “ghostly” barn owl. In the winter months, we may get the opportunity to see some of the migrant owls, the long-eared, the short-eared, the snowy and the palm-sized saw-whet owl. Most of these migrant birds move here from the Northern portion of the United States and Canada to winter in Iowa.

The short-eared owl is one of the most widely distributed owls in the world, but in Iowa, it is on the Iowa endangered species list. This owl is quite unique and different from other owls. The short-eared owl is a ground nester and is a partially diurnal (daytime) owl. The nest consists of a small depression or indentation on the ground lined with plants and feathers found near marshes and grasslands concealed by plants. This owl is Iowa’s latest nester, nesting in May through June. The number of eggs laid depends on food availability. More commonly, the short-eared owl is a winter visitor and there are fewer and fewer reports of nesting in Iowa due to their need of large tracts of grasslands and prairie.

The Neil Smith Prairie Learning Center and National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Jasper County is just a short driving trip from most anywhere in Central Iowa. The mission of the NWR is to actively protect, restore, reconstruct and manage the diverse native ecosystems of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and sedge meadow (wet prairie). These were the native habitats on the 5600 acres of the NWR prior to Euro-American Settlement. It is an absolute get-away to drive through the bison and elk enclosure, especially in the winter months, to possibly get a glimpse of the migrating short-eared owls that call this refuge home for the winter months. These owls normally begin their journey back north the end of February through the first part of March.

An activity to try!

Migration Headache - A Project WILD simulation game for upper elementary students that will help identify all the hazards and hardships faced by migrating water birds.

Download the activity here from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (this is from the 2000 edition of Project WILD. Want to learn more about Project WILD?

  • Iowa WILD Resources

  • Contact the Iowa DNR WILD coordinator ( for info about upcoming professional development incorporating WILD.

What we are expecting to see next month?

We all hoped February this year was going to treat us a little nicer, but it could always be worse. March is the time that noticeable seasonal changes begin to appear and those changes happen really FAST...

The first of the spring ephemerals (the short-lived plants that emerge quickly) in Central Iowa should be making their debut this month. If you live in an area in Iowa that the skunk cabbage blooms, they will be appearing through the snow and inviting the first of the pollinators to get the season started. Snow trillium will follow with their blooms possibly piercing the snow on the woodland floor. The woodlands will come alive!

Gathering maple syrup is a spring tradition for many. In March the sap begins flowing through the trees in the southern half of Iowa. Historically, sap was considered an agricultural crop and pioneers gathered as much sap as they could from the sugar maples for their annual supply of sweetener. Learn about maple syrup production at the Iowa State University Forestry Greenhouse.

The woodcock begins the mating season in March. We call them timberdoodles in our neck of the woods due to their unique, oddball looks. They are very low to the ground and their huge eyes are set way upon the top of their head. Living around and within the woodland their dance and behavior has given them many other names like bogsucker and mudbat. Their aerial dance is a sight to see on a clear evening.

The sounds of chorus frogs may be heard from small ephemeral ponds and roadside ditches opening up. Some of the wetlands can be ear piercing with their song. These tiny little frogs call when it is still pretty chilly outside. Grab a fine-toothed comb and take your finger up the teeth of the comb to mimic their sound. Watch this video clip from the Marion County Conservation Facebook page to hear the chorus frog.

Keep your eyes out for the wild turkeys, you may be seeing the Toms and jakes strutting to impress those ladies.

Many of the red-winged blackbirds, grackles, and rose-breasted grosbeaks will soon be returning from their wintering area south. Many of these birds will be returning from Central and South America.

Adult osprey will be returning the latter part of March to regain their nesting territories. These birds have become iconic in Iowa with reintroduction efforts of the species beginning in 1997.

Large groups of white pelicans donning their spring plumage and breeding bumps (nuptial tubercle) will be moving through Iowa. We always enjoy this celebration of white! Watch for the waterfowl migration. The adult males will be in their most grand gala attire and the vocals will overwhelm the waters and the sky. You will hear from high above the announcement of open waters.

The turkey vultures will be coming back in March from their wintering grounds in South and Central America. It’s almost like clockwork, migrating eagles leave and the turkey vultures arrive. Their job of environmental clean-up will once again be needed as the snow melts.

Links for learning:

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.