WATERLOO — A lone green heron rested on a branch and basked in the spotlight at Greenbelt Lake.
Nearly two dozen bird-watchers on a nearby trail focused their binoculars and cameras as the heron changed shapes, extending its neck an absurd distance before returning to normal.
It was among 61 bird species the group encountered Wednesday during a birding field trip, one of many events set up by the Prairie Rapids Audubon Society to celebrate Bird Appreciation Week, which wraps up Sunday.
“This park is not only known in Waterloo but around the state as a diverse area for birding,” said PRAS president Tom Schilke. “There’s a nice trail they maintain and a lot of different habitats — water, prairie, trees.”
Later in the hike, the group stopped at a hot spot where an array of colorful, singing birds — rose-breasted grosbeaks, chesnut-sided and black-throated green warblers, a downy woodpecker and a warbling vireo, among them — appeared be throwing a party.
On the nearby lake swam several grebes, a ruddy duck and white-billed coot.
Craig Rash, who led the morning walk, said some species like the grosbeaks had just arrived to nest in the area while others were simply passing through.
“Some of these birds are migratory and they’re coming through here heading north,” he said. “There are only a couple of weeks to see them here.”
The more seasoned birders were able to name the species by their calls, while others were referencing bird guides to confirm identities.
“For me this has just opened up a whole new world,” said Susan LeMaster of Charles City, who began birding seriously five springs ago.
“I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life and I didn’t know about these birds until I got educated,” she added. “Now I wonder, ‘How did I ever miss those beautiful birds?’”
The former biology teacher said the hobby is a great way to continue learning new things, enjoy the outdoors and make new friends.
Waterloo is the state’s first and only Bird Friendly City, an honor bestowed last fall under a new Bird Friendly Iowa program focused on preserving and expanding bird habitats, reducing threats to birds and engaging people in birding, bird conservation and related outdoor recreation activities.
Schilke said Waterloo is the pilot project for Bird Friendly Iowa. The Audubon Society is working with the city and other entities to build on its good foundation, and the Bird Week field trips are part of that process.
“A lot of it is just making our community more aware of their surroundings, what our birds and other critters need,” he said.
Technology is also helping bird-watchers become more connected.
Active birders post what they’ve seen at eBird.org, Facebook pages and other websites, helping the community find the best viewing locations. Greenbelt Lake and the Riverview Recreation Area in Waterloo have both been tapped as hot spots on eBird.
Schilke said the sighting of a rare species can even drive some level of tourism, recalling a bird enthusiast from Atlanta who came to Waterloo for a weekend to see a Northern Saw-whet owl, which had been nesting in the area.
“People that do birding are quiet,” he said. “They’ll show up and do things and nobody knows they were here.”
More information about the Prairie Rapids Audubon Society and its birding field trips can be found at www.gopras.org.