It was 5:30 a.m. and 33 degrees, and I was hiding in the only cluster of trees left after the flood on the west shore of Upper Decatur Bend Wildlife Management Area in Monona County, Iowa. I was shaking, but I think it was the thermos of coffee I had consumed on the two-hour trip north rather than the cold. I like the cold.
Sunrise on this late April morning was still nearly an hour away and American white pelicans were already landing in the still water 50 yards from me. Fish were jumping. I was nervous. I had been here before to photograph the birds and always spooked them before I was able to get a decent photograph. This time I decided that I needed to be in place before they arrived and stay as still as possible.
The sunrise was perfect. Streaming through the trees on the east-side shore, the orange rays highlighted the light fog and silhouetted the majestic birds. The saturated orange glow lasted for only 10 minutes. Just long enough for me to get my shot.
I previewed my images to see if I was catching what I was seeing. I adjusted my exposure and made a few dozen more images.
I had come for the pelicans. I had photographed a flock in Bartlett, Iowa, the previous fall and was excited to photograph them during the breeding season when they had bill horns. The American white pelican is the only species of pelican that has bill horns. What I wasn’t expecting were the other species of shore birds, waterfowl and other critters that came within range.
American coots, a type of rail, were everywhere. The comical bird moved through the cattails in pairs, their red eyes glowing in the early morning light.
Red-winged blackbirds were everywhere. The males would perch on small branches trying to draw in females and drive other males away.
Barn swallows dived and darted through the air. I tried to photograph them in flight but ended up settling for a pair resting on nearby twigs.
I stayed until 10 a.m. and then moved east on Highway 175 to Blue Lake Wildlife Management Area and Lewis and Clark State Park. I had seen great egrets there before and hoped to get a few photos before heading back to Omaha.
The egrets weren’t close to the road, so I put an extender on my 600 mm lens and hoped for the best. I slowly crawled down the bank and situated myself near the water’s edge. The light was now bright, and the gracefule white birds glowed against the tree-lined background.
Then I noticed muskrats swimming in my direction. I was surprised how close they got to me, seemingly unable to hear the clacking of my camera documenting their every movement. I had previously seen muskrats during an assignment following a trapper in Ord, Neb. They weren’t near as endearing on that trip as they were removed from the traps and thrown at my feet in the canoe.
Then I saw a bird that I had never seen before. It was skittish and and kept hidden in the cattails. I had to look through my lens for 10 minutes before I got a decent photo. Not knowing what it was excited me. I spend quite a bit of time outdoors and thought I had seen most shore birds in the area while fishing for catfish or on dozens of previous bird-watching trips.
My excitement soon turned to terror as I realized I was covered in seed ticks. I immediately went to my car, stripped on the side of the road and began returning the tiny bloodsuckers to their natural habitat. I must have been a sight because several cars and trucks honked as they passed by.
When I finally made it home and was sure I was parasite-free, I started looking for experts to tell me what species I had photographed. Quickly I had my answer: a sora. I had never even heard of the bird, let alone seen one.
Despite the ticks, I had a great feeling as I worked the photos on my laptop. I knew I had witnessed nature’s grandeur and I wanted more.
After a few outings to local wildlife management areas, I learned that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission was hosting a birding day at Rock Creek Station State Historical Park near Fairbury.
I was welcomed by the group and placed in a group with Clem Klaphake, a birding expert from Bellevue.
Again I found myself staring through my lens at a bird I had never seen. The female summer tanager was only visible for a moment, but that feeling of excitement coursed through my veins.
The great thing about bird watching is that you can do it anywhere, anytime and all for free. Well, mostly free. I feed the birds in my neighborhood premium birdseed, so I spend quite a sum at Tractor Supply Co. and the local car wash.
Read more: Midlands a birding ‘hot spot’
Showcase: More Mark Davis birding photos