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The Upper Wapsi Wildlife Area is returning to a mix of wetlands, timber, and prairie that traditionally would make up this area, hosting various wildlife from sandhill cranes, Canada geese, red-shouldered hawks, bobolinks, pheasants, to wild turkeys, blandings turtles, smooth green snakes and white-tailed deer.
The easy-to-find public area, bordered by Iowa Hwy. 346 to the north, and two miles west of U.S. Hwy. 63 in south central Chickasaw County, attracts birdwatchers, and waterfowl, deer and pheasant hunters to its 560 acres.
“It’s easy to get to, but you have to be willing to walk to see everything that is available here,” said Jason Auel, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Cedar-Wapsi Wildlife Unit, while heading to the south side of the property.
His destination was a 15-acre restored wetland built as a part of a series of four basins on the GC Farms tract during the winter of 2011, just before the parcel was acquired by the Iowa DNR in 2012. On the way, a wild turkey, dusting and bugging in recently planted food plot, hurried to the safety of the timber.
This large wetland has held water year-round since construction. It’s not visible from the road and is roughly a half mile hike from the parking lot. Dozens of Canada geese, lazily paddling around the wetland, became nervous at the presence of the uninvited guests.
Near the wetlands, are a series of rolling mounds that were created when the basins were installed. These mounds have slightly more elevation and plant diversity than the low laying areas because it doesn’t get flooded as often.
These mounds were part of a 60-acre section that received prescribed fire early this spring and rattlesnake master, blazing star, various milkweeds, and gray headed coneflower can already be seen. Fire is necessary to keep trees and the moist-soils-and-floodplain-loving Reed canary grass, an invasive species, from encroaching on the prairie.
The Wapsipinicon River flows through the center of the area and is the source for the fairly regular flooding. Heavy rains in the watershed can send the river out of its banks, like it did a few weeks ago, when parts of Mitchell County received six inches of rain.
“Fire top-killed a bunch of trees,” Auel said while looking at the burn area. “We’ll see if we need any follow up treatment in a few weeks.”
The river offers the opportunity to catch northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleye. Paddling this river stretch is possible, but challenging given the debris.
The Upper Wapsi area was created in 1998 with the purchase of a parcel in the Wapsipinicon River floodplain west of the river, and south of Hwy 346. Initially seeded to prairie, the frequent flooding changed the area to canary grass and trees. Auel said they are working to reestablish the prairie – it was sprayed last winter, then planted with wild rye, Indian grass, big bluestem and switchgrass.
On this picture-perfect, blue-sky day, a bald eagle was perched on the top brand of a dead tree along the river. On the west side, a pair of trumpeter swans were nesting on the edge of a two-acre wetland – their two recently hatched cygnats visible through a spotting scope or binoculars.
“It’s a nice example of a floodplain, oxbow wetland area that would traditionally be here,” Auel said. “It has good pheasant and deer hunting and bird watching for grassland birds, and pileated woodpeckers and red-shouldered hawks in the timber.”