OTTUMWA — Locals are used to eagle watchers descending on Ottumwa every winter. But Jim Forde, a retired postal worker from Cedar Rapids, had his eyes on something else.
He was watching seagulls.
“I think they’re handsome,” Forde said as he peered through his telescope. He had his eyes set on a particular bird, perched on a log in the middle of the river. “Unlike other birds, they’re not gaudy. But they’re handsome.”
Forde said he’s been traveling around eastern Iowa, watching and taking pictures of gulls. While his normal spots are in Davenport and the Quad Cities area, he said there’s nowhere better in the state for watching birds than Ottumwa.
He acknowledged that his interest in gulls over eagles was, to an unseasoned bird-watcher, somewhat peculiar. Most people, he said, think he’s out watching eagles.
“Bird watchers aren’t interested in bald eagles because they’re so common,” he explained.
Seagulls, according to Forde, get a bad rap because of their muted colors and eating habits. But they offer plenty to an attentive observer. Forde said there are few birds with so much variance between types, and that seven separate species live in the area.
“Identification is the trunk of the tree for bird watching,” he said. “It’s kind of like a classroom for me.”
In a state where some of the most popular outdoor pastimes are hunting and fishing, Forde said he’s always been drawn to bird watching. He said he does some photography, and had a camera slung around his neck, but mostly tends to watch.
“It’s another way to have a relationship with wildlife,” he said.
Forde said he’ll return to Ottumwa in a few months, as he does every year, when seasonal birds migrate back north. There’s one breed in particular, the Mississippi kite, that nests in just two cities in Iowa: Des Moines and Ottumwa. They’re small, insect-eating raptors that Forde said have a floating, graceful appearance when in flight. He urged everyone to keep their eyes open for the animals when spring comes.
The seagulls that feed in Ottumwa mostly nest near Lake Rathbun, and Forde said he had about an hour left before the birds flew back. He intended to follow them.
“Everybody kind of does bird watching their own way,” he said. “This is my way.”