NORTH IOWA OUTDOORS: Getting off the Couch and into the Outdoors is Healthy for Body & Mind

Written by Lowell Wahsburn. All Photos by Lowell Washburn.

Looking for something to do?  Sure, aren’t we all?  No matter who or where you are, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has created some dramatically unwelcome changes in how we’ve been living.  Most of us are into our third month of mask-wearing, physical distancing and we’re all getting a little stir crazy – more than ready to get back to life as we knew it.

There are some bright spots — some things people can still do that make life seem a bit more normal.  Getting into and enjoying the out-of-doors, for example, is an activity we can still safely enjoy.  Beyond the obvious recreational values, getting outdoors is healthy for body and mind.

Nashville Warbler Looking into Camera

Nashville Warbler

For many of us, getting outdoors means looking for birds, and there’s no better time to do that than right now.  Migrating songbirds have invaded Northern Iowa by the thousands and local woodlands are currently bursting with song and color.

More than 200 bird species nest in or migrate through Iowa each spring.  Some species — orioles, tanagers, buntings and grosbeaks — are obvious and hard to miss.  Getting a peek at others – such as the more than 30 visiting species of wood warblers – provide greater challenges.  In many cases, a quick flash of color through jungle-thick greenery is all you get.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Regardless of which outdoor habitats you choose to explore, there are some basic guidelines that will lead to improved viewing.
Here are my:
Top Five Tips to Better Birding:

1]  Getting out of bed and hitting the trails early pays dividends.  Most birds are never more active than during the first hours of daylight.  Just as the early bird gets the worm; early birders get more sightings.  If your primary focus is on warblers, look for spots where the early morning sunlight first penetrates the overhead canopy.  As warming, sunlit insects start to become active, hungry warblers will soon arrive.

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

2] Keep noise and movement to a minimum. Although this may sound like basic common sense – because it is – most folks continually violate both rules; making way too much noise and moving around way too often.

3] Once you find some activity – especially if it is associated with a food source – drop anchor and stay put for a least a half hour. Although you may think that remaining motionless in one spot for more than five seconds is not in your DNA, I guarantee that you’ll see a lot more birdlife if you let them come to you instead of you crashing around looking for them. Wearing dark or camouflaged clothing will also increase sightings. For those who want to go all out, black & green face paint will complete your birding wardrobe, rendering you virtually invisible to even the closest of birds.

Male Baltimore Oriole

Male Baltimore Oriole

4] As with real estate, location is everything. Generally speaking, the larger the block of habitat, the greater the numbers and variety of birdlife you’ll find. Two of my favorite high yield birding locations are the Nature Conservancy’s Clausen’s Cove Area located adjacent to Farmers Beach Road on the South Shore of Clear Lake and Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City. Both areas offer a rich mix of mature hardwood timber, dense understory, and are liberally sprinkled with small wetlands. When it comes to wildlife diversity, it just doesn’t get any better.

5] Last but not least — Don’t forget to bring your binoculars and favorite bird book. There is never a better time to key out a mystery bird than when it’s hopping around at your feet. Published by Golden Press, the Birds of North America is my longtime favorite guidebook. The maps and text are simple, and the superb illustrations are well organized and impeccably accurate.

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