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Watching the watchers: Eastern Iowa birdwatchers are interesting species

IOWA CITY- A Great Blue Heron is quickly located on a distant shoreline. A Mallard couple is mucking in the water near the shore. The water is lower than anyone can remember, the result of a dry spell continuing into autumn this year.
Then, an urgent call:
“Mystery sparrow!”
Instantly, there is a flurry of movement as 20 pairs of hands move optical aids to their own eyes to scan the brush, shore or tree line.
“What do we got?”
The “mystery” bird is identified as a Lincoln’s sparrow.
The Iowa City Bird Club embarked on a field trip to Waterworks Prairie Park in Iowa City on Oct 29. The club publishes a newsletter, Eastern Iowa Birdwatch, three times a year and has members in over a dozen towns including Cedar Rapids, Marion, Solon, Oxford, and Amana. Member Rick Hollis lives in North Liberty and has been with the avian-spotting society for almost 40 years.
During this recent field trip, Hollis, armed with binoculars, said the order of the day would be sparrows.
What is observed about this band of birders is that the Eastern Iowa birdwatcher is, in itself, an interesting species.
The group advances together slowly, moving almost as one, pausing often to cock their heads and listen for birds singing, while they keep keen eyes poised on nearby prairie and wetland ground, in the brush and up in the trees, watching for telltale movement.
The team stopped together– abruptly– when a big dark bird glided across their path. It was some distance away, and might have been written it off as an American Crow, until Hollis asked, “Didn’t that tail look long?”
“He’s putting a scope on it.”
Jason Paulios of Iowa City set up his field scope for everyone to share the view. Group members checked the scope and Hollis declared it a young Red-tailed Hawk. It was the only hawk of the day.
Instead, eight species of tiny sparrows ruled the park. Eurasian Tree Sparrows are an introduced species that are often found around St. Louis, but have spread to Iowa City. They were flitting in the low branches of the trees. Juncos, some song sparrows, a swamp sparrow, white-throated sparrows and white-crowned sparrows were also added to the day’s list of identified birds.
In addition to their plumage, some birds are identified by their calls. The belted kingfisher has a “rattle” call and after hearing it the first time, birders stopped in concert and watched the sky until a spotter pointed to the water bird soaring overhead. Some brought up binoculars to follow the bird in flight.
Paulios was often at the front of the group, sighting birds and making whistles and rasping calls to imitate avian lexicon. His field scope, mounted on a tripod, allowed the group members to take a closer look at some birds and compare notes on feather patterns and colors.
Through the scope, Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots were spotted, and with unaided eye, dozens of other birds made the bill.
Like a flock of birds themselves, members of the club track species in a necessarily cohesive nature. It’s a complicated practice to navigate without active leaders and directors; occasionally some watchers would fall behind because something interesting had been discovered. The group would double back get another look.
Ramona McGurk of Iowa City said her interest in bird watching started at a very young age. She first tried using a butterfly net to capture sparrows and keep them as pets. Today, she sticks to watching with binoculars and said she enjoys being outside and going to lakes and parks for her lifelong hobby.
With dozens of bird-related presentations, meetings, field trips, a club listserve and other resources offered every month of the year, the Iowa City Bird Club has both indoor and outdoor opportunities for all bird enthusiasts.
The group has an upcoming Christmas bird count on Sunday, Dec. 18, which will include teams of feeder watchers and field workers counting total species and total numbers of birds in a 15-mile radius centered in North Liberty. Last year, the bird count saw about its 10-year average of 65 total species, with over 8,000 total birds tallied for 2010. The group also does a spring bird count.
At the end of the Oct. 19 experience, the birdwatching group migrated together to review everyone’s sightings, calling out birds species from their lists: rock pigeon; American pipit; yellow-rumped warbler; eight kinds of sparrows; both of Iowa’s kinglets– the ruby- and gold-crowned variety; and Cedar waxwing, to name a few of the 37 different species of birds seen during the outing.
When it was mentioned that a red-throated loon might be at Lake Macbride, a few in the group grabbed their scopes and headed off in search of the feathered jewel. Others trekked home, perhaps for a little backyard feeder watching of their own.