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Exline, Iowa - Heading east for two miles on gravel from the Appanoose County town of Exline leads to the 7,300-acre Sedan Bottoms Wildlife Area, an important birding spot that is popular for duck hunting and home to legendary Iowa stags.
The expansive area is a mix of wetlands, upland timber, bottomland timber and grasslands supporting diverse wildlife at a get-away-from-it-all place.
“If you want an opportunity to enjoy a wildlife area away from other people, Sedan Bottoms is for you,” said Heath Van Waus, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Sedan Bottoms is an oasis for a number of Iowa birds in need of critical habitat, like red-shouldered hawks, chimney swifts, sedge wrens, bobolinks, Eastern whip-poor-wills, Acadian flycatchers, Henslow’s sparrows and more. Given its size, habitat diversity and location to other large blocks of public and private land, both in Iowa and northern Missouri, as well as its importance on the migration route, Sedan Bottoms was dedicated as an Iowa Bird Conservation Area in 2013.
Its habitat diversity also supports an impressive reptile community including western ribbon snakes, prairie ringneck snakes, northern water snakes and state threatened diamondback water snakes.
The hydrology that makes Sedan Bottoms so dynamic also brings with it the continuous battle that is reed canary grass, an unwanted, hip busting invader that loves moist soil.
“With the weather conditions during the spring and summer months in the last few years we’ve been fortunate enough to get out and implement some of these management practices we want done,” he said.
Van Waus and the Rathbun Wildlife Unit have been using different techniques to suppress the canary grass and add diversity to the plant community. They’ve applied chemicals from above and from the back of utility vehicles to get to the hard to access places. They’ve mowed large sections, used prescribed fire and, when possible, disked in the fall.
The native seedbank that still lives under the invasive reed canary grass and now given way to bidens, sedges and annual and perennial smartweed to outcompete the canary grass and provide high quality food and brood rearing habitat. When its blooming, the number of pollinators here is beyond impressive.
“Every wildlife area is a little different and here, our goal at Sedan Bottoms is to convert a couple hundred acres each year away from canary grass using existing research and things that have worked in the past as well as trying new approaches, to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said. Projects are spread around the area to create grassland diversity.
Van Waus has added a small grain component in the last year from the cover crop seeds raised by the DNR. The 60-80 acres in small grains provides food for birds, is used by deer for browse and grassland birds to raise their broods.
His staff applied the seeds in the fall using a broadcast spreader and/or drill to let the rain and snow work it into the ground. They used the same technique to install food plots that can handle a little wet soil.
“We’ve had better success getting those seeds to take by planting in the fall when mother nature is little more forgiving,” he said.
On this early August morning, wildlife staff have placed boards into the water control structure on Brush Creek, a tributary to the nearby Chariton River, under the watchful eye of a barred owl.
Brush Creek flows through Sedan Bottoms and will back up water through a system of oxbows and other water control structures that will divert the water to the sub impoundments creating a series of shallow wetlands.
Much of the now converted canary grass will have sheet water underneath it, which is great for hunting teal along with numerous other waterfowl species, he said. “When there’s water in the marsh and the acorns are dropping from the swamp white oaks and pin oaks, waterfowl numbers can be pretty impressive,” he said as a pair of wood ducks flew off the creek right on que.
“It’s walk-in hunting only here - there’s no boats – so you have to carry everything with you, which is a different kind of experience. The sheer size allows most hunters to find hunting spots away from other hunters,” Van Waus said.
That size, along with its location, makes Sedan Bottoms attractive to nonresidents during deer season.
“There’s world class whitetails down here, but they’re not that easy to get to,” he said.