Give a Hoot About Wetlands!

I read the description of Wittenbreer Marsh on the Howard County Conservation Board web page, and sensed an opportunity to find owls. “But Paul,” you say. “Ducks, Herons, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds…sure. But Owls in a wetland?” I understand how you could feel a bit bewildered.

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Marsh with herbaceous plants and nearby conifer timber

As a matter of fact, some owls do roost, hunt, or even nest in wetlands; read about Barred or Great-Horned owls for examples. They can find cavities for nesting in flood-killed trees, wide-open spaces for sighting prey, and some wetland animals (such as crayfish) are regularly eaten by these birds. But Wittenbreer offered something quite specific that got me excited: a marsh wetland, and open fields surrounded by dense thickets of conifers (evergreens). The evergreen stands are excellent owl hangouts! These particular trees are similar-sized and in nice straight rows: hallmarks of plantation-style woods. Specifically, the trees are mainly groves of Pine: Red (Pinus resinosa), White (P. strobus), and Scotch/Scot’s (P. sylvestris) pines; however I saw some spruces (Picea), red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), and scattered hardwood (deciduous) trees here and there.

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I call this “March of the Pines.”

I expected the owls would roost in the pines, which provide excellent cover (especially useful in winter). Some species even nest in Iowa this time of year! With such excellent owl habitat, I hoped to spot a couple birds hunting small animals, maybe collect some owl pellets (dry, regurgitated waste) under roost trees, and hear their amazing hoots and screeches. I arrived at the site around 4:00 PM, time enough to wander around and take pictures in the light, eat my supper, then wander out with flashlight to enjoy the show at dusk. With my amazing naturalist knowledge and skills, perfect habitat and weather conditions, I was almost guaranteed success…almost.

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As it turned out, I found zero pellets, observed not a single bird hunting, and in fact saw no owls at all. While wandering around, I saw signs of their prey (i.e., tracks of small mammals). I waited beyond dusk into full darkness, hearing other animals and moving around quietly, listening carefully for owls. I admit to a growing disappointment.

Finally, I heard a series of sharp, rapid clicks: the distinctive alarm sound made by an owl nearby! I can’t identify which species—several make that snapping noise with their beaks—but I was certainly excited to know an owl was nearby, and that my search was successful! Soon I made the long drive back home in the dark, tired but happy, having enjoyed a special encounter with nature. Come back often to 99wetlands to read about other natural discoveries. Better still…go have some wetland adventures of your own, and send your recommendations for my future ramblings. See you out in the wetland!

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Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

4 thoughts on “Give a Hoot About Wetlands!”

  1. I admit to personal bias against pine plantings, partly because I’ve seen and heard about sites in Iowa where very well-meaning landowners and/or conservation organizations thought that unrecognized prairie remnants would be wonderful sites for pine plantings and then acted accordingly. Straight-row conifer plantings on Iowa’s limited public land, especially plantings with non-native conifers, usually just make me hope that someday they’ll be replaced by diverse native plants. So it was good to be reminded that owls and some other native wildlife can and do make very good use of pine plantings just as they are. Thanks for the interesting post!

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    1. True enough—it’s worse when the plantation is a monoculture, and especially non-native species! (I believe neither Red Pine nor Scots pine are native to the state). Good to keep in mind, as I prowl them looking for pellets or the birds themselves 🙂

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