Winter is a trying time for some animals, looking for food and water sources and trying to stay warm, but there is an animal that is tucked in for a long winter’s nap, not worried at all. Now to some this animal might seem like a pest or the destroyer of gardens; but they are helpful to soils for aeration and nutrient recycling. Their burrowing action provides oxygen into the soil and brings nutrients like iron, calcium, and phosphorus to the surface helping plants. Also, the complex burrow systems they create provide safe havens for other animals in winter such as rabbits, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and skunks. Some of these may also be viewed as nuisances but that’s a story for another day. These borrows have interconnected tunnels and rooms with multiple entrances that can extend up to 40 feet!
Have you guessed we are talking about groundhogs? Or called, in your neck of the woods, woodchucks, or mouse bears (because of their appearance when sitting up), or in some parts, “whistle-pigs”? (This last refers to the high-pitched warning of danger sounds they make and “pig” in reference to their rodent-cousin the guinea pig). In actual fact groundhogs are very large squirrels (who knew?), and are also related to chipmunks and prairie dogs. They are primarily herbivores, (the aforementioned destroyer of gardens), but they won’t pass up a chance to eat other things we consider pests, such as grubs, insects, and snails. They can weigh as much as 15 pounds but an average weight is around 8.5 pounds.
Groundhogs are true hibernators. Beginning in late October or early November when outside temperatures begin to drop, they will go into the burrow and settle down. Their heart and breathing rates slow and their body temperatures drop to approximately 39-40 degrees. Between the start of hibernation until emerging from the burrow, they will lose about 25 percent of their body weight. (Explains the ravenous attack on the garden, huh?) February is the month that male groundhogs stumble from their burrows but not to predict the arrival of spring, rather they are scouting out burrows belonging to females. The fellas will ramble around getting acquainted with the girl’s locations and then will go back to the burrow until March when the mating season begins. The babies arrive in early April in a litter of two to six blind babies, once a year. The babies are called kits, pups, or most adorably chucklings. “Chucklings” stay with their mama for about three months and then go on their own way.
The most famous groundhog is of course Punxsutawney Phil. Poor Phil, he gets dragged out against his will and paraded in front of the nation before he would naturally be rousing from sleep. Really isn’t it just six of one, half a dozen of another? This tradition dates back to 1886 when the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, Clymer Freas, published a report that local groundhogs had not seen their shadows that day, signaling an early spring. It is likely that the story of Phil is based on European beliefs that badgers and hedgehogs an provide signals about the future, and lacking those in his area Clymer substituted the local animal that most resembles a badger or hedgehog. (Seriously, can you trust any of those to be a prognosticator of weather?)
But for now, the groundhog is snoozing away dreaming of warm spring breezes, grubs, and snails, and your luscious garden. Please plant extra.

Did you know Iowa has 9 different species of Owls? One of the most elusive of the group is the tiny Eastern Screech Owl.
Eastern Screech Owls are one of the smallest owls in Iowa at 8.5 inches tall with broad wings, and “ear tufts”. They are sometimes called little horned owl because of this feature. Their plumage can be gray, brown, or red in color with yellow eyes. These owls are highly nocturnal, they roost during the day, becoming active at dusk; so, they are rarely seen hunting and feeding during daylight hours. They will eat anything from small mammals such as deer mice, shrews, squirrels, moles, and bats, to small birds such as finches and flycatchers, as well as doves and quail. Other prey includes large insects, crayfish, earthworms, toads, lizards, snakes, spiders, and centipedes. When hunting the owls swoop down from their perch to capture their prey; they rarely hover while hunting. Screech Owls have been known to cache uneaten prey items in tree cavities! Owls are the symbol of wisdom after all!

Eastern Screech Owls don’t migrate and will maintain home ranges throughout the winter. However, during severe weather, owls may move off their home range in search of food. Surprisingly, despite the name, screech-owls do not just screech. The screech is only one vocalization that they can make, and is generally used when defending the nest and their young. Their “everyday” vocalization is a descending trill or a whinny (like a tiny my little pony).

These owls are primarily solitary except during mating season late winter and early spring. They will nest in hollow trees and in abandoned woodpecker holes. On occasion they might accept wood duck boxes or specially designed owl boxes, especially when the bottom is covered with sawdust. The females incubate the eggs and brood the young. Males feed females and guard nest cavities during incubation and brooding. The young leave the nest at about 28 days old and remain with the parents until they are 8 to 10 weeks old. Both parents will feed the young during this period. Screech owls have the potential to live 8-10 years in the wild. However, because of high mortality rates for both juveniles and adults, very few of them make it to that age. In human care, their lifespan can be as high as 13 years, but please leave them in the wild. They are happier there, and no small point, the United States does not allow private individuals to keep native owls as pets.

Burning can look destructive. It leaves a path of charred remains but from those remains come new life. Yesterday you may have noticed smoke coming from Jefferson County Park. A small section of Oak/ Hickory Forest underwent a prescribed burn to set back invasive species and encourage the growth of native plants.

Some forests may look healthy at first but if they are full of invasive species, they are being deceptive. Invasive species provide minimal food supply for the animals, especially birds who need high protein food sources. They also shade out our variety of native plants and in turn offer only a few food sources. Jefferson County Park has seen the most damage from Bush Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, and Garlic Mustard. A prescribed fire helps to keep these invasives at bay while encouraging the growth of our native plant community.

Ever wondered what our Environmental Education program is all about? Werner Elmker took on the project of capturing what it is that we do. We hope you enjoy his short video.

During the off-season months of November thru April the Conservation Board staff is able to switch gears from caring for the campgrounds, picnic areas and trails to projects that improve habitat. The work is often misunderstood by the public. This article will explain some of the benefits that result from the work being done.
Prairie management projects are very important because many species of wildlife that depend on this type of habitat are declining. It is said that 1/10th of 1 percent of Iowa’s original prairie remains. The prairie grasses and wildflowers require full sun to survive. Allowing these remnants to be overtaken by invasive brush makes them unusable to many types of insects from butterflies to walking sticks as well as several grassland dependent birds.
One good tool for keeping prairies open is prescribed fire. Each spring we try to burn a few of our prairie areas as weather and time allows. Burning regularly keeps them free of brush and generally in good shape. Some of our prairie areas that are farther out in the county or are hard to access can become overgrown with invasive trees and brush. Some of these invaders cannot be controlled with fire.

When this occurs, other tools become necessary. Chainsaws and brush mowers are commonly used to keep unwanted trees out of prairies. Hard to kill invasives like Autumn Olive and Black Locust must also be treated with herbicide. A similar tool that will be used at Round Prairie Park and the Neff Wetland this winter is called a Forestry Mulcher. This is a grinder attachment that goes on a skid loader and is able to mulch all the unwanted brush into chips.
Round Prairie Park contains over 50 acres of remnant prairie that has been overtaken by Autumn Olive, Amur Maple and Red Cedar. A contractor with a Forestry Mulcher will be working during the next 2 winters to restore these very rare and important remnants.

The right of way of the Loop Trail along the Highway 34 bypass was seeded to prairie after its construction. This prairie is a hard one to take care of with fire because of its proximity to the highway and adjoining private property. Several beneficial trees have been planted along this stretch but many invaders have also grown up. Trees like Box Elder, Cottonwood, Black Locust, Cedar, Elm, and the shrub Autumn Olive all have the potential if left unchecked to shade out the prairie. Conservation Board staff will be removing many of these trees during the upcoming winter to save the prairie and the wildlife that depend on it.
Another technique that park visitors may notice is known as girdling. This involves cutting the bark at the base of unwanted trees and leaving them standing. This allows the sunlight back into areas that were once prairie. This may also be done in forest or woodlands to help with Oak Regeneration. Young oaks require sunlight to thrive.
The disturbance that results from these projects can be upsetting to see but the goal of improving wildlife habitat is more important than ever. For prairie wildlife to survive there must be prairie.

For more details about improving habitat contact Shawn by email Shawn@JeffersonCountyConservation.com.

With the arrival of warmer weather, several of the parks managed by Jefferson County Conservation will see their amenities opening back up.

The Round Prairie Park and Mac Coon Access campgrounds will open on Friday, April 2nd. Both campgrounds have a nightly rate of $12 for electricity and $9 without. The campgrounds are first come, first serve.

Jefferson County Park campground, cabins, and shelters will officially open April 30th. Cabin reservations are available online at JeffersonCountyConservation.com. Cabins are $55 per night with a $4 processing fee added at the time of payment. There is a two-night minimum stay for weekends. Reservations must be made three days in advance of arrival date.

Jefferson County Park shelters may be reserved from 9:00am-9:00pm. Shelter 1 & 2 have a reservation fee of $15 per day. Shelter 3, which overlooks the pond, has a fee of $20. Shelter reservations can be made by calling the office at 472-4421.

Jefferson County Park campground has nightly rate of $17 for electricity and $14 without. The campground is first come, first serve. Self-contained campers will be allowed beginning April 16th. Bathrooms will be open by April 30th weather permitting.

National Moth Week is a worldwide citizen science project to study and record populations of moths. The annual event is held in the last week of July. It encourages scientists and non-scientists to participate in mostly night-time surveys of moths.

Head to the official National Moth Week website for more information.

Looking for a cute coloring book? Here ya go!

If you are looking to do some moth identification, this silhouette page will help you out!

Here are pictures taken in Jefferson County Park at past Moth Nights.

Local entomologist, Moni Hayne has put together a collection of several great references regarding moths and Moth Week.

Enjoy!

Virtual Fieldtrips, that was a phrase we knew nothing about two months ago. To adapt to a different spring than normal, staff created pre-recorded highlights of fieldtrips students would have gone on, then joined the classes via Zoom. It was not the same as an in-person fieldtrip but it was a great alternative. Overall, we met with 46 classes and had 533 participants. Thanks to all the teachers, students, and parents which helped make this happen! To see the virtual fieldtrips, or any of our other videos, head to our videos page!

Notice of Jefferson County Conservation Board Meeting
A teleconference meeting of the Jefferson County Conservation Board will be held on Monday, April 6th to approve a contract with the DNR for a Fish Habitat Grant project. For more information, please call 472-4421.

The April Jefferson County Conservation Board meeting will be held by phone. Please contact Shawn Morrissey at 641-472-4421 by noon on April 29th to get access information.