NEAL SMITH NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The refuge sits on the east side of Des Moines and encompasses about 6,000 acres. Of that, 4,000 acres represent the largest prairie restoration in the nation. About 55 bison roam 700 acres along a 5-mile route through the refuge. Sometimes they’re seen, sometimes not. Sometimes they block the road, creating a prairie traffic jam — and the perfect photo opportunity. But snap those photos from the safety of your vehicle; it’s the perfect viewing blind.
When driving through the prairie at the refuge, note the abundance of grassland birds. Dickcissels are among the birds that begin arriving in May with their “dick-dick-cissel” calls.
Others include the eastern and western meadowlarks with their melodic songs that float over the prairie. Bobolinks are here, too, in the early summer, especially where the buffalo roam. Northern harriers fly over the grasslands, looking for food such as the 13-lined ground squirrel. Meanwhile, some short-eared owls remain throughout the year, often sitting atop posts, although the largest number are here in the winter. A variety of sparrows also call the refuge home.
While here, take in the visitor center where displays tell great stories about the prairie that once covered most of Iowa. Free.
KELLERTON GRASSLANDS BIRD CONSERVATION AREA
Just west of Kellerton, may be the only place in Iowa where people can watch male prairie chickens perform their springtime courtship dances. This flat dance area, called a lek, is where they stomp, prance, puff up their bright orange air sacs, leap into the air and try to intimidate each other as they show off to hens. To view this requires people to be at a viewing platform erected by the Ringgold County Conservation Board before the chickens arrive about dawn — their dances don’t last all that long, perhaps an hour. The board hosts its Prairie Chicken Festival on the first Saturday in April. Free.
Information: mycountyparks.com/County/Ringgold, 641-464-2787
DESOTO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
About four miles east of Blair, Nebraska, on U.S. Highway 30, this 8,362-acre refuge is best known for the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds that stop here each spring and fall. While the refuge currently is closed due to flooding, rangers are hopeful that visitor access will resume in time for the fall migration, September through December. Road work has begun, so there could even be some public access by late spring or early summer. Last year, the snow geese migration peaked at 57,179 in late November. Some 37,000 waterfowl were recorded as well.
It’s an impressive sight, especially when these birds congregate on the water. There’s a public blind on the north side of the refuge, accessible on the auto tour. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit required.
The best place to watch the show, however, is from the comfort of the visitor center viewing galleries. A ranger usually hangs out in the space, answering questions and helping spectators spot eagles in trees (bring your binoculars!). While you’re here, be sure to check out the Bertrand steamboat museum collection. The steamboat sank here in 1865, and its recovered contents are on display. The refuge grounds (once reopened after flooding) are accessbile daily sunrise to sunset; the visitor center is open daily (except for certain federal holidays), 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Information: fws.gov/refuge/Desoto, 712-388-4800
BALD EAGLE WATCHING
Communities along the Mississippi River are known places to watch bald eagles every year between mid-December through early March. Many eagles perch high in the trees that flank the river on the lower sides of the 11 locks and dams that touch Iowa. While parts of the river may freeze in the winter, the water below the dams usually doesn’t, and that’s where the eagles swoop down to grab fish near the surface. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources states that the eagles increase from a summertime count of about 500 to around 3,000 each year when they arrive to fish the pools below the dams.
Several riverside communities hold events when the eagles arrive. Planned for 2020:
Jan. 10-12: Quad Cities, Bald Eagle Days, 309-788-5912, qccaexpocenter.com/bald-eagle-event
Jan. 18: Dubuque, Bald Eagle Watch Days, 563-845-7698, traveldubuque.com
Jan. 18-19: Keokuk, Bald Eagle Appreciation Days, 319-524-5599; keokukiowatourism.org
Jan. 23-26: Muscatine, Eagles and Ivories, 563-263-8895; visitmuscatine.com
— Mike Whye, World-Herald Correspondent