FAIRBANK, Iowa - Fans in the stands of the Wapsi Valley Warriors football stadium have taken notice of the large birds with long necks and grinding, raspy calls flying overhead during games in recent years. The once rare sight has become more common as the local sandhill crane population at Aldo Leopold Wildlife Management Area continues to expand.
“It’s pretty cool seeing them come through and hearing them call,” said Jason Auel, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Warriors supporter.
The 1,600-acre Aldo Leopold Wildlife Area, bisected by County Road C50 between Denver and Fairbank, is a mix of upland/prairie habitats and wetlands in the floodplain of the Wapsipinicon River. This floodplain ecosystem emerged after years of attempts to drain the water off the land and make it agriculturally productive. But the land didn’t cooperate; it wanted to stay wet.
It finally got its way in the late 1980s when a partnership of conservation and hunting groups, individuals and organizations, and the Iowa DNR, with funding in part from Iowa Resource Enhancement and Protection program, purchased it and let it become a floodplain wetland.
The basins on the complex receive water from rain and runoff and the nearby Wapsipinicon River. When the river level is high, it will flood a network of ditches that feeds the various basins through a number of water control structures.
Those structures can hold water from the spring through the summer where dry periods reduce the water level, exposing mudflats and encouraging wetland plant growth. When the rains return in the fall, the plants will be flooded making the area attractive to waterfowl.
The basins are about 30 percent full on this June morning. A dozen mallards are sitting on a high spot in the middle of the east basin near the water’s edge. Canada geese are enjoying a swim nearby. On the south edge of the middle basin, 10 wood ducks flush.
The habitats attract a diverse mix of wildlife from deer and turkeys, to waterfowl and furbearers, and more. It has a large snake population that includes smooth green snakes, crayfish snakes, fox snakes and garter snakes. Turtles here are of the snapping and painted variety. When the marshes are dry, it can be a great place for pheasants as long as the spring nests didn’t flood out.
The area’s most recent residents seem to prefer the wetland/grassland habitat mix. The sandhill cranes unique call can be herd coming from the taller vegetation on the marsh edge. Two cranes take flight as our truck approached the south basin, but a second pair was reluctant to leave. Auel suspects there’s a colt nearby.
“There’s something about Bremer County that the sandhills like,” he said. “A few years ago, the county conservation board started a sandhill count at Sweet Marsh. The crane population was expanding to the point that the count is now conducted county-wide.”
The most recent count was around 70 birds.
Managing a complex system
It’s a constant battle to keep wet soil loving invasive species, like Reed canary grass and elms, along with cottonwoods and willows from encroaching on the area. Fire is often used to knock back unwanted species and promote native plans. Here, that’s difficult because it’s often too wet to burn in the spring. If it’s late spring, using fire could impact snakes, and pheasant, geese and sandhill nests.
Corn, sorghum and, occasionally, soybeans are planted for food plots at different locations here. The wet spring will likely require a change to millet or triticale. Both tend to re-seed themselves the following year and the added weed growth in the second year provides good habitat for ground nesting birds. In addition to the seeds on the plants, the areas attract lots of protein packing bugs for hungry for turkeys and pheasants.
Bird Conservation Area
The Aldo Leopold Wildlife Area is part of the Wapsi River Bird Conservation Area that includes Sweet Marsh and the Wapsipinicon River Greenbelt. “This can be pretty good viewing for shorebirds and waterfowl during the spring and fall migration,” Auel said.
Fishing the ditch
There are a few secret fishing holes known by the locals here that produce crappies and some small northern pike all year long. One of the most consistent is along the main ditch and can be up to 18 feet deep. Another isn’t far from Little Buck Wildlife Area on the northwest edge. Both spots offer a mix of fish that came from the river.
Paddling away from it all
The main ditch the holds enough water that a person could kayak from one end of the Aldo Leopold area to the other, covering a distance of about two miles. Some waterfowl hunters use a kayak to paddle their way back so far, then hike the rest of the way to their hunting spot.
A network of mowed dikes is a great way to hike through the area.
Auel is in the early stages of working with the district forester on a forest management plan for the timber resource.
The Also Leopold area is different from others nearby in that it offers walk in hunting, no boat ramps. Six parking lots provide access to the narrow, two mile long area. Even with the six parking lots, it can be a good hike to most spots.
Aldo Leopold is a fairly popular area with dove hunters. In a normal year, local wildlife staff will install 20-acres of sunflowers and attract 40-50 vehicles for opening day. The wet spring hasn’t allowed them to get the fields in and they are currently looking at their options.
“If you want to catch bullfrogs, this is the place to come. It has a lot of bullfrogs,” Auel said.
Although the grass type found at Aldo Leopold area isn’t perfect, this is the last known location in northeast Iowa where prairie chickens were found.
Little Buck is a 200-acre public floodplain timber on the northwest edge of Leopold. It has an old railroad right of way that leads right to the Wapsi. It’s a popular access lane for turkey hunters and anglers.