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SWISHER, Iowa - Hawkeye Wildlife Area has a well-earned reputation as an important birding area during the spring migration and as a duck hunting hot spot during the fall.
But it’s much more than just a convenient stopping place to rest and refuel along the migration route.
This 13,500-acre public playground covers the upper end of the Coralville Reservoir in northwest Johnson County near a population of nearly 400,000 Iowans who can enjoy a wild escape all year long.
Steve Woodruff, wildlife management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at Hawkeye, said it may be cliché but there’s really something here for everyone from bird watchers, berry pickers, mushroom hunters, photographers, professors, students, hunters, anglers, hikers, shooters, archers to get-away-from-it-all-ers.
Even Cyclone fans.
One reason that it attracts such diversity of users is the diversity of its landscape and the wildlife that call it home. Hawkeye has areas of hardwood timber, floodplain timber, upland, prairie, wetland, river, reservoir and a desert.
Yes, a desert.
The dunes on the hill
Thousands of years ago, the same high winds that created western Iowa’s Loess Hills also created sand dunes on select hills on Hawkeye. The soft sandy soil on these hills is noticeable as soon as the foot hits sand. Prickly pear cactus is here reinforcing the areas decidedly desert-like feel.
The area is in transition back to its historic desert-like habitat and Woodruff plans manage it as a sand dune and grass environment. The conversion began this spring when 80 goats were released on 16 acres to eliminate unwanted vegetation and small trees that have appeared over time.
“Goats are selective eaters but love the thorny stuff,” he said.
These goats happily munched their way through multiflora rose, nettles and poison ivy leaving behind vegetation that is more manageable. The goat experiment was a success and plans are to have them again next year.
Wet soils constant battle
Life in a floodplain can be challenging for habitat managers and the lowlands at Hawkeye are no different. It’s a constant battle to prevent willows and Reed canarygrass from taking over and about the only thing that can keep it in check is farming.
“We do get questions about why we crop parts of the area, but it keeps invasives at bay and does add some diversity and benefits to wildlife. Without it we’d be solid willows and Reed canarygrass which has very little wildlife benefits,” he said.
Overlooking a large oat field a few weeks from harvest, grasshoppers are everywhere. Grasshoppers feed pheasant chicks and the harvested oat fields will be excellent for dove hunting. Once the oats come out, a portion of the area will be planted to cover crop for deer browse and goose loafing.
But farming in a floodplain is a gamble. It all depends on the weather and at any time the crops can go under water.
“Any income generated by the crop leases goes directly back into maintaining the area and that benefits hunters and non-hunters alike,” Woodruff said.
Just outside the flood zone is a prairie in full bloom providing cover for young pheasants and turkeys to navigate under the safety of the leafy canopy while dining on an all-you-can-eat buffet of insects. A quail is calling off to the east. That’s encouraging, he said.
Water level at Coralville Reservoir
Hawkeye Wildlife Area is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and managed by the Iowa DNR. The Corps maintains the water at a certain level on Coralville Reservoir for summer recreation, and then raises it in the fall ahead of waterfowl season. Once that season closes, it’s allowed to drop.
The lower water level exposes mudflats and sandbars which is a magnet for shorebirds migrating north.
Karen Disbrow, past president and current events coordinator for the Iowa City Bird Club, said the area draws birders from across the state, especially during the spring, and many of the 429 possible bird species encountered in Iowa could pass through Hawkeye.
“We get black-crowned night herons here and sometimes we get yellow-crowned night herons,” she said, noting one recent sighting of the yellow-crowned night heron was in the back corner of the ponds off Green Castle Road, just south of the intersection with Swan Lake Road.
She said it’s the diversity of habitat at Hawkeye makes it attractive outside of the spring migration. “It’s great year round for birding,” she said.
She said the Iowa City Bird Club is hosting their annual pelican festival Sept. 9 at the Iowa DNR’s office at the Hawkeye Wildlife Area, 2564 Amana Rd. NW, Swisher. The event is free and kid friendly.
The Iowa DNR’s online hunting atlas at www.iowadnr.gov/hunting offers visitors a map to help navigate the area. There are various state and local websites that keep birders in the loop about what species has been spotted in the area, plus some maps that show where to find different species and newsletters to keep everyone in the loop on birding activities. Disbrow recommended www.iowabirds.org/, https://ebird.org, https://iowaaudubon.org/ and www.icbirds.org.
Hawkeye is one of a few areas in the state with developed shooting ranges. The ranges are on the north side and built to accommodate pistols, rifles, shotguns and bows.
The pistol and rifle range has three bays of different lengths with a bluff as the backstop. The trap shoot area has designated shooting sites and drop zone and next door is the archery range offering targets at different distances and an elevated platform.
“The archery range is a great place to learn to shoot a bow,” he said. “It gets substantial use, especially in September ahead of bow season.”
The range is open from sunrise to sunset and it is free and open for the public. A range master is on hand to provide assistance at the three ranges.
“All we ask is for the shooters to clean up after themselves,” Woodruff said.
Friends of Crescent Pond
A few residents living nearby established the Friends of Crescent Pond, whose purpose is to impound a little more water on Crescent Pond and step one was to fix and elevate an old road through the area. The group has funded a new culvert under the road and is now focused on re-grading the road damaged from previous floods.
Why the interest in ponding more water?
“A lot of them are duck hunters and the expanded area will provide more waterfowl hunting opportunities,” said Woodruff.
Knap Creek project
A long-in-the-works project to install a mile long dike along the floodplain of Knap Creek could be done this fall.
The dike includes a water control structure that will allow Woodruff to keep water off the floodplain in the summer which allows it to vegetate. In the late summer, he will install a series of boards that will create a temporary dam backing up water on 300 acres.
Converting the 300 acres into a seasonal wetland provides more opportunity for all visitors and especially for waterfowl hunters – which could increase the use of the area.
“After years of weather delays and funding issues, we’re hoping that this is the year,” he said.
Dog trail area
About 300 acres on the south edge of Hawkeye is a designated dog trail area that provides a realistic hunting experience for the competitors. It is most frequently used in the spring and early fall.
Given its proximity to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, it gets a lot of use. “It’s pretty popular,” said Woodruff. “A lot of people come to the events to work their dogs.”
Professors and students from Cornell College and Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids will soon be conducting studies on the area. The University of Iowa will soon be studying the impacts of goat grazing at Hawkeye.