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Birding Popularity Soars

When most people think of Iowa, they think of its extraordinary agricultural productivity. But above those fertile fields is one of the nation's top spots for birdwatching. And for those who love to watch bald eagles, Iowa may be the best place this side of Alaska.

Snowy Owl, Photo by Larry Reis Male Northern Cardinal, Photo by Larry Reis Bald Eagle at Coralville Lake, Photo Courtesy US Army Corps of EngineersRing-Necked Pheasant Rooster, Photo by Larry Reis Female Northern Cardinal, Photo by Larry Reis Horned Lark, Photo by Larry Reis Rough-Legged Hawk, Photo by Larry Reis

The Mississippi Flyway

"The Mississippi River is one of the major migration pathways, both spring and fall, through North America," said Doug Harr, president of Iowa Audubon. "We get a lot of birds that stop here in Iowa on their way north or south."

The Iowa Ornithologists' Union has identified 426 species of birds that can be spotted in Iowa in a given year, including around 200 species that nest in Iowa during the spring and summer, another 100 that spend winters in the state and more than 100 bird species that spend short periods in Iowa during their annual migration.

"What we're starting to see now are birds we don't see the rest of the year," Harr said. Several rough-legged hawks and snowy owls that nest in the arctic tundra, as well as white-winged and red crossbills from the Northwoods or Rocky Mountain states, have descended on Iowa in search of more abundant food sources.

A Haven for the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle in Iowa: Photo by Larry Reis
Iowa is especially hospitable for bald eagles. Open waters below major river dams provide nearly 5,000 wintering eagles with ample supplies of fresh fish. Photo by Larry Reis.

The same holds true for the majestic bald eagle. Nearly extinct 35 years ago, Iowa and western Illinois are the permanent home for more than 500 pairs of eagles and the winter home for as many as 5,000. Southeast Alaska is the only location in North America that hosts more bald eagles during the winter. Harr said the birds are attracted here because open waters below the dams along the Mississippi, Des Moines, Iowa, and Cedar Rivers provide eagles easy access to fish.

The bald eagle populations have spurred considerable tourism to the state among birdwatchers who have never seen eagles in their natural winter habitat. Harr recalls meeting a family from New Jersey who traveled to a Bald Eagle Festival in Keokuk recently just to view the majestic birds.

Best Bird Watching Locations

White-Winged Crossbill: Photo Courtesy Doug Harr
White-winged crossbills, like this bird photographed near Spirit Lake, migrate to Iowa from Minnesota and Canada to gain access to warmer weather and more abundant food sources. Photo courtesy Doug Harr.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is supporting bird enthusiasts by identifying the best locations for bird watching in the state. Not quite the same as a biking or hiking trail, the three birding trails are essentially driving routes that link prime birdwatching spots:

  • - The Siouxland Trail winds through the Loess Hills in western Iowa.
  • - The Makoke Trail includes 22 sites within a 45-minute drive of Des Moines; and
  • - The Great River Birding Trail parallels the Mississippi River.

"These are great places to go find breeding birds during the summer nesting season that may go to South America during winter and maybe birds that come down from the North Country to spend the winter as well," Harr added.

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