Birding in Iowa

You really ought to give Iowa a try. With farmland, the state features a variety of habitats, especially along the banks of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
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“It’s not all corn and beans . . .” the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union says on its website, acknowledging the perception that the state is one big agricultural field. While corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle are abundant, Iowa retains forests, prairies, and lakes and wetlands (natural and man-made) that offer fine birding.

Iowa’s nearly 390 recorded species of birds represent a combination of south-central, midwestern, and northern species, highlighted by waterfowl, gulls, and other waterbirds along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, which form most of the state’s eastern and western borders.

Areas such as Yellow River State Forest host vireos, warblers, tanagers, and other songbirds, including some that are uncommon in the rest of the state. Prairie areas such as Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are home to nesting Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink. Saylorville Reservoir is one of several Iowa sites for waterfowl, loons, grebes, gulls, and terns.

The state currently has three active birding trails: the Siouxland Trail in western Iowa's Loess Hills, the Great River Birding Trail paralleling the Mississippi, and the Makoke Trail in eight central Iowa counties. These combine to provide excellent roadmaps for a birding trip—or several—in Iowa.

Iowa Birding Hotspots


Saylorville Reservoir

Just north of Des Moines, this large reservoir gets good coverage from local birders. Around the lake and in nearby parks, more than 300 species have been recorded. One single spot on the lake, Jester Park, has a list topping 250.

In spring and fall, Saylorville’s open water hosts waterfowl, loons, and grebes, as well as many species of gulls, including Bonaparte’s, Franklin’s, and a long list of rarities. Osprey and Bald Eagle are present much of the year, and American White Pelican can be common, especially in late summer.

The area around and below the dam is a popular birding spot, particularly for seeing gulls. On the north side of the lake, Sandpiper Recreation Area is a good site from which to scan the water. In late summer when the water level drops, Jester Park on the south side can be great for shorebirds. Many other spots offer views of the lake as well.

While in the area, check nearby areas such as Red Feather Prairie for grassland birds and lakeside recreation areas for songbirds.

Lacey-Keosauqua State Park

This 1,653-acre park in southeastern Iowa has long been a favorite destination for the state’s birders. It’s an Audubon Important Bird Area and in 2015 was designated an Iowa Bird Conservation Area.

The park’s wooded valleys and bluffs along the Des Moines River are home to an interesting array of nesting species. More than a dozen miles of trails wind through the park.

Birds that might be seen here on a spring or summer visit include Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Carolina Wren, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole. Cerulean Warbler has nested here occasionally in the past.

Lacey-Keosauqua is a good site for spring migrant warblers and other songbirds, with peak numbers around the first week of May.

Cone Marsh

Cone Marsh is a wildlife management area about 20 miles southeast of Iowa City that’s developed a bird species list of more than 220. Primarily marsh, it’s a popular hunting area with adjacent private hunting clubs, so birders should be aware of waterfowl seasons.

Primary access is from the western side of Cone Marsh, off a rural road called V Avenue, with parking areas and boat ramps. Other roads encircle the private part of the marsh but can still provide good roadside birding.

Likely birds here in winter and spring migration include Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Trumpeter Swan, more than a dozen species of ducks, several grebe species, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, and Sandhill Crane. Northern Harrier and Bald Eagle are common.

The presence of wading birds and shorebirds is dependent on water levels, but Cone Marsh can be a hotspot for those groups. Look for Virginia Rail and Sora in spring. In nesting season, watch for Wood Duck, Common Gallinule, Willow Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Bell’s Vireo, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Yellow Warbler, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Waubonsie State Park

Waubonsie State Park is located in extreme southwestern Iowa in an area called the Loess Hills, uplands composed of very fine, wind-deposited soil. The hardwood forests here host a variety of birds, making it as productive for spring and summer birding as it is scenic.

Waubonsie features seven miles of hiking trails, including an interpretive trail with signage identifying some of the park’s plants and wildlife.

Explore the park to find Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Eastern Whip-poor-will, White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, and Summer Tanager.

Just five miles east of Waubonsie is Riverton Wildlife Management Area, a wetland that can have waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds. Birding is restricted by hunting seasons in fall and winter. A road on the west side of the area provides access for viewing. Virginia Rail and Sora have been seen in marshy spots here, and Bald Eagle is seen in winter.

Red Rock Reservoir

This large reservoir about 30 miles southeast of Des Moines is impounded behind a dam on the Des Moines River. It’s known for waterfowl, loons, grebes, Bald Eagle, and gulls, including many rare species that have shown up over the years. The backwaters of the reservoir at its west end can, depending on water level, be good for seeing wading birds and shorebirds.

Highways and county roads encircle Red Rock, from the town of Pella near the dam to Runnells on the west. Various parks, marinas, and boat ramps provide many opportunities to scan the reservoir.

The area around the dam can offer the best birding from fall through spring. Overlooks on both ends of the dam and adjacent roads and trails provide views of open water and the river. Look for diving ducks, loons, American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, and gulls. Depending on water level, there can be shorebirds, gulls, and terns below the dam.

On the south side of the reservoir, Whitebreast Recreation Area is a favorite lookout point, as is Elk Rock State Park. On the north side, Fifield Park and Cordova Park are also good birding spots.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

Set on a Missouri River oxbow, now called DeSoto Lake, this 8,300-acre refuge is an excellent site for a wide range of birds. Located about 20 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, it lies partly in Nebraska and partly in Iowa. (Birders who keep state lists, take note.)

Habitats here include riparian cottonwood forest, lake, shallow wetlands, grassland, and river sandbars. Twelve miles of paved and unpaved roads allow access to much of the refuge. Some roads are closed from October 15 to April 14 to minimize disturbance to resting waterfowl.

More than two dozen species of waterfowl have been seen here, and at times the number of ducks and geese can be 50,000 or more. In fall, flocks of Snow Geese can greatly increase that number. Double-crested Cormorant and American White Pelican are present for much of the year, and dozens of Bald Eagles winter on the refuge.

Nesting birds of DeSoto include Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Red-headed Woodpecker, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.

The refuge has a fine visitor center with a view of DeSoto Lake, as well as an amazing collection of artifacts from an 1865 steamboat wreck on the Missouri River.

Dewey’s Pasture

In northwestern Iowa, the Dewey’s Pasture Bird Conservation Area encompasses wetlands of the “prairie potholes” area of glacially formed shallow ponds and marshes. The region is tremendously important as a breeding area for many bird species, and this complex north of Ruthven is an official National Natural Landmark.

Nesting birds found here include several species of dabbling ducks, Western Grebe, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, Forster’s Tern, Black Tern, Marsh Wren, Swamp Sprarrow, Bobolink, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Also look for Trumpeter Swan, American White Pelican, Northern Harrier, Sandhill Crane, Bald Eagle, and many species of shorebirds.

The Lost Island Prairie Wetland Nature Center, on the eastern side of Lost Island Lake, has exhibits on regional wetlands and local environmental issues.

Yellow River State Forest

Just a few miles apart in northeastern Iowa, Yellow River State Forest and Effigy Mounds National Monument are protected areas with striking bluffs and hardwood forest alongside the Mississippi River. Designated a local Important Bird Area, they represent some of the finest bird habitat of this type in the region.

Many of Yellow River’s best hiking trails are located in the Paint Creek Unit. The park’s location and habitat diversity make it a wonderful spot for songbird migration.

Among the birds nesting in the two parks are Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Veery, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, American Redstart, Cerulean Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.

Bald Eagle can be common along the Mississippi River in this area, and Peregrine Falcon has nested in cliffs along this part of the river.

Hitchcock Nature Area

This site in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, an upland ridge of wind-deposited soil, is about ten miles north of Council Bluffs. It’s become a favorite of birders for its woodland habitat, and especially as a fall hawk-watching spot. The geographical setting here means both eastern and western species pass overhead.

Full-time Hawk-counters use a tower for observation from September into December. The peak period begins around September 20.

The most frequent species include Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk, with occasional sightings of Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, or several other uncommon species.

Spring songbird migration can be very good at Hitchcock, and western species such as Spotted Towhee sometimes appear.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Tallgrass prairie and other grasslands are among the most endangered habitats of North America. At this 8,600-acre refuge, located 20 miles east of Des Moines, work continues to restore prairie and native oak savannah. Both bison and elk have been reintroduced here.

This means a bounty of grassland birds, many of which can be seen on the refuge’s five-mile auto tour route or its four hiking trails. (Visitors are not allowed to leave vehicles where the road passes through the bison and elk area.) Don’t miss the exhibits at the Prairie Learning Center.

Among the breeding birds frequently seen in this refuge are Wild Turkey, Upland Sandpiper, Willow Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Bobolink, Western Meadowlark, and Eastern Meadowlark. Different species have different habitat preferences, so be sure to check sites with very short grass as well as tallgrass areas.

In migration and winter, the refuge hosts Northern Harrier, occasional Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Northern Shrike (rare), Lapland Longspur, Smith’s Longspur, and a wide variety of sparrows.

Birding Trail

Great River Birding Trail 

When fully completed by the end of this year, the Great River Birding Trail will follow the mighty Mississippi all the way from the Gulf of Mexico north to its headwaters in Minnesota. Detailed county-level maps already connect sites near the river in eastern Louisiana and Arkansas and in western Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Explore any portion of the vast route and you’ll come to understand that the river is a vital corridor for birds, worth enjoying and protecting. In shaded backwaters and oxbows near the main river, flocks of rainbow-colored wood ducks thrive in all seasons, joined in winter by great flights of mallards and other ducks migrating from farther north. Seemingly endless streams of ospreys, eagles, sandpipers, and plovers participate in the year-round parade of wings overhead. Extensive forests on the riverbanks hold a wide variety of nesting birds, from colorful yellow-throated, hooded, and Kentucky warblers to big raptors like red-shouldered hawks and barred owls. In the maturing bottomland swamps of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, birders can thrill to frequent sightings of big, flashy pileated woodpeckers, while dreaming of the possibility that even bigger woodpeckers might still be lurking among the trees. —Kenn Kaufman