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The evidence was easy to see that hunters had found the recently mowed 10-acre sunflower field at the Red Rock Wildlife Area on the first day of dove season – 25-30 vehicles were parked along the road whose drivers had abandoned their bucket seats for real buckets set few rows deep in the remaining sunflowers waiting for the nation’s most popular game bird to come rocketing through.
Mourning doves are one of many species of migrating birds to use Red Rock Wildlife Area on their journey each spring and fall. While the fall migration attracts the attention of hunters, the spring migration is two to three times larger. Both migrations include ducks, geese and white pelicans, but large numbers of shorebirds are attracted to the Red Rock mudflats to rest and refuel for their long journey.
“Shorebirds like mudflats. Red Rock is one of the better places in Iowa to view shorebird migration because we have plenty of mudflats,” said Todd Gosselink wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the Red Rock Wildlife Area.
Other migrants follow behind using the migration itself as a food source. A record number of bald eagles - 900 - came through the Red Rock area during a spring migration, with a few staying behind to become year round residents.
Flocks of white pelicans were already using the Runnells and Big Hartford marshes, two of the more popular marshes for duck hunters. At roughly 450 and 500 acres respectively, these marshes can hold thousands of ducks in the fall, if the conditions are right.
Mudflats and marshes are just two habitat types here; the Red Rock Wildlife Area also has prairie, timber, upland and bottomland, riverine and fine windblown sand habitats.
Managing habitat can be challenging. Managing habitat surrounding a flood control reservoir built to hold enough water to cover 65,000 acres is a whole different thing.
Gosselink is responsible for managing 28,000 acres of land west of the mile long bridge. Everything along the Red Rock Wildlife Area is dependent upon the lake and high water is an annual event.
The bottomlands are usually under water each spring as the lake, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, holds water to prevent spring flooding. Once the water recedes, a local partner will plant beans or corn, depending upon when they can get in.
“The soil is rich and if it doesn’t flood out, they will have excellent yields,” Gosselink said.
This annual farming is a strategy to prevent cottonwoods, willows and cockleburs from taking over the area. The agreement also requires the partner to leave a small percentage of crops standing as a food plot for wildlife.
“The bottomland often has disturbed soil and early successional plants which is exactly what pheasants and quail prefer. If it doesn’t flood in the spring, we can have good reproduction,” he said while watching a rooster pheasant zig-zag ahead of him on a bottomland gravel road.
Gosselink likes to say that this flood zone on the Red Rock Wildlife Area is the wildest place in Iowa. There are no lights and no residents in the immediate area. At night, beyond the occasional set of headlights, the area is completely dark.
The darkness and remoteness of the area does bring with it its share of headaches. An open gate is seen by some as an invitation to do as they please.
“It’s a difficult situation because we want to provide access but if we leave gates unlocked, it becomes a dumping area or off-roading area. It’s a balancing act,” he said.
Gosselink’s staff plan trash collection days every so often to clean the areas, spending scare budget resources to remove old appliances, tires, household waste – even a dead horse.
While a few bad actors can cause some damage and leave a mess, the Red Rock Wildlife Area is open to everyone.
The mix of habitats and uses means ample opportunity exists for wildlife watchers and hunters alike to enjoy the area all year long.
The timber attracts deer and turkey hunters. Sunflower plots attract dove hunters. Marshes mean ducks and geese. Upland and prairie attract pheasant and quail hunters.
Don’t like to hunt? The diverse forest tree species offers unique hiking opportunities and provides colorful and extended fall leaf viewing.
“It can be fun to see the fall colors from a boat on the lake,” Gosselink said. “And it’s only 40 minutes from Des Moines.”
New Ramps Expand Access
The Iowa DNR has used a combination of grants and partnerships to improve and expand the number of boat ramps on the marshes and river, including a new ramp set to open in 2018 on the north shore one mile west of the mile long bridge.
The new boat ramp, funded in part by a grant from the federal government through the Iowa Department of Transportation, is on a finger on the lake protected from wind and waves, and likely be favored by kayakers.
Other recent projects have improved access to boat ramps at Box Cars and added two new concrete boat ramps at Runnells Marsh.
Red Rock History
According to Native American lore, the red color of the sandstone outcropping on the bluffs overlooking the Des Moines River came from the blood of bison spilled on the rocks.
A town of the same name sits at the bottom of the reservoir just west of the mile long bridge.
The same area as the town was home to the second largest sycamore tree in the United States at the time, whose stump is still visible today at normal pool. The tree was used by Native Americans to come together to negotiate treaties and earned the name Peace Tree.
More recent history was uncovered a few years ago when a deer hunter reported finding a bone near a beach that was determined to be from a mammoth.