Raccoon River Savanna: Iowa's 10th Bird Conservation Area

Raccoon River Savanna, Iowa's 10th Bird Conservation Area
Savannah Like Pasture at Whiterock conservancy BCA. Photo by Doug Harr

In a special ceremony held in Coon Rapids on December 13, 2006, the Department of Natural Resources officially dedicated Iowa's tenth Bird Conservation Area (BCA). This particular BCA is special for several reasons: 1) it is the first Iowa BCA to focus on savanna habitat, 2) Whiterock Conservancy comprises 4,909 acres of the 8,164 total acres protected within this BCA and forms an important "core area" in which to target bird conservation measures, and 3) Springbrook State Park and Elk Grove Wildlife Area form the other two "core areas" for this BCA.

And what is savanna? Put very simply, savanna represents a transition zone where prairie meets the forest, and like prairie, it is a community that has evolved with fire. Historically savanna was recorded as barrens or woodland and not called savanna. Before Euro-American settlement, the land west of the Raccoon River complex was mostly prairie, with very few trees. More woodland and savanna occurred on the east side of the rivers. According to Professor Tom Rosburg, from Drake University, because of the lack of fire during the last +100 years, much of what was historically savanna in this area is now woodland or forest. About one-third of Iowa's 200 breeding birds can be found nesting in this transition zone. Red-headed Woodpecker is the most common savanna species here; other GCN species to watch for include Barn Owl, Northern Mockingbird, Swainson's Hawk, and Bewick's Wren. Eastern Bluebird is a great example of a savanna species. Loggerhead shrike, Lark sparrow, and Orchard Oriole are other examples of birds found in this savanna transition zone.

The Raccoon River Savanna BCA is approximately 54,000 acres with about 8,000 acres (15%) in public land and conservation easements and the vast majority of the land is in private ownership. About 24,000 acres (45%) of this BCA is grassland, and about 8,500 acres (15.5%) is Woodland/Savanna. This special area contains a variety of habitats - homes to many declining Iowa grassland bird species, like Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, northern Bobwhite, and Sedge Wren; Savanna species found here include Red-headed Woodpecker and almost certainly the Iowa Endangered Barn Owl; Woodland species documented here include Wood Thrush, Prothonotary and Black-and-white Warblers, Black-billed-Cuckoo, and White-eyed Vireo.

An inventory of existing birds is occurring in the Raccoon River Savanna BCA on Whiterock Conservancy land. Already, 29 of Iowa's 67 Greatest Conservation Need (GCN) breeding bird species have been confirmed and potentially at least 20 more GCN species should be added. Greatest Conservation Need species are those animals listed in Iowa's Wildlife Action Plan that most need human assistance to reach stable or increasing populations.

Expectations are that this BCA will attract bird enthusiasts from throughout the region. In fact, bird watchers already are visiting this area. In 2005, hundreds of bird watchers flocked to the Whiterock Conservancy area to see a Vermillion Flycatcher (the fifth one ever seen in Iowa), and in 2006 the nonprofit, Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), began an Osprey reintroduction program on Whiterock Conservancy land.

Any resulting growth in the local tourism also will help meet goals for the Coon Rapids area, recently named one of Iowa's pilot "Great Places". This program intends to help make some of Iowa's "good" places "great", through partnerships, cultural diversity, improved environment, engaging experiences, and a vibrant economy. The new BCA should help further these values while also providing healthy local bird populations. The Wildlife Diversity Program staff expresses its appreciation to Whiterock Conservancy, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Guthrie and Carroll County Conservation Boards, and private landowners for making this unique Bird Conservation Area a reality.