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Work at Towhead Lake supports grassland species, upland gamebirds

  • 6/20/2023 2:27:00 PM
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Towhead Lake was once a natural shallow lake, with a network of connected wetlands, considered sovereign land by the state highway commission when it visited the area in the 1910s.

With a maximum depth of just over three feet, an apparent lack of fish, and a thick stand of rushes and marsh grass, the 1916 Survey of Highway Commission suggested in its survey report that the lake be drained and the resulting land maintained in state ownership.

Historical documents show that in the 1950s, a local state conservation officer was present during a winter circle fox hunt on Towhead Lake and reported the number of pheasants wintering on this area was between 2,000 and 2,500, “similar to the year before.” At that time, it was a common practice to plant trees and shrubs to benefit pheasants. So, the Conservation Commission planted Russian olive, honeysuckle, black locust, cedar, ash, hackberry, white pine, and even multiflora rose. Reed canary grass was also introduced into poorly drained areas in an effort to outcompete Canada thistle.

To those driving past the easily visible, 196-acre public wildlife area adjacent to county highway D15, west of Knoke (town motto, ‘Knoke, Next 3 Exits’) in Calhoun County, the changes at Towhead Lake are significant.

“We’re currently working to remove many species that are now considered invasive. We want to restore the area back to a wetland-grassland ecosystem. The plan is to control some of these introduced species and promote a more diverse landscape of native plants,” said Clint Maddix, wildlife biologist, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Black Hawk Wildlife Unit, in Lake View.   

Today, much of the work has focused on removing those species planted 70 years ago.  Dense tree plantings on the area had filled in with honeysuckle and buckthorn making it difficult to walk through and leaving the ground bare underneath.

With many of the trees downed and invasive shrubs removed, the landscape more likely resembles what was surveyed by the highway commission more than 100 years ago.

The area management plan calls for a combination of increasing prescribed fire intervals and targeted chemical applications, likely beginning this fall, to knock back the re-sprouting trees and shrubs, and manage the prairie.

“We want to manage this area for grassland dependent wildlife species and improve the habitat for upland game birds and migrating birds,” he said.

While there has been progress, a lot of challenges remain.

A small stand of black locust on the south end requires a planned approach to remove it because as a species, it thrives on being damaged. To get rid of it will require the stumps to be treated after the trees are cut. If not, it will come back thicker. The southeast section has phragmites which has been treated through aerial herbicide application, but has come back as thick as before. It will be treated again.

A row of dogwoods – a shrub native to Iowa – lines part of the western portion and will remain on the area. Its flowers are being frequented by monarchs and clouded sulphur butterflies. A brown thrasher darts ahead in the shrubs; a gray catbird can be heard deep in the thicket.

With much of the trees and shrubs removed, some remnant prairie plants have started to show up – cord grass, goldenrod, cup plant, sawtooth, and lots of milkweed. 

About halfway south from the parking lot, the oddly shaped area extends east. Here, a hayfield and small section of row crops are tucked out of sight. A Dickcissel sits on the boundary sign calling and responding to another in the area. A hen pheasant flushes near a redwing blackbird nest home to two eggs. An upland sandpiper is spotted nervously flying away from cover near the old lake shoreline. On the southwest corner just behind the small soybean plot, a rooster pheasant has spent his morning crowing.

On this hot, cloudless day in late June, there’s a lot going on at Towhead Lake.

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