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Central Iowa birding opportunities abound at Chichaqua - Neal Smith Bird Conservation Area

  • 7/5/2023 12:08:00 PM
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Dedicated in the spring of 2005, the Chichaqua-Neal Smith Grassland Bird Conservation Area (BCA) is an important stop along the bird migration. Based on weather radar, an estimated 800 million birds migrate through Iowa in the spring, and up to one billion in the fall, which puts Iowa in the top five states in the country for volume.

That’s a pretty big deal.

“Iowa is globally important for migration and it’s important to have habitat available during the migration as a stopover,” said Anna Buckardt Thomas, avian ecologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Iowa began establishing bird conservation areas in 2001 in an effort to protect declining populations of many Iowa birds. The BCA model encompasses at least 10,000 acres of public and or private land with about 25 percent of the area established as key bird habitat. Research suggests that viable bird populations require conservation efforts at the landscape level. Each BCA includes a core area of protected high-quality habitat surrounded by private lands plus additional public tracts, all managed to provide good bird habitat. Iowa currently has 24 BCAs around the state.

The Chichaqua-Neal Smith BCA has two main public areas as bookends – the 9,000-acre federal Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge to the south, and the 5,800-acre Polk County Conservation Chichaqua Bottoms and adjacent 1,800-acre Polk County/DNR Chichaqua Wildlife Area to the north.

These core areas provide large expanses of grasslands benefiting grassland species, woodlands for woodland species, and oak savanna benefiting both. Private lands are important to the complex, providing habitat such as hedgerows for species like brown thrashers and catbirds to nest. Even the small towns play a role through their parks and backyard habitat and feeders.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Birding begins on the five-mile winding, hilly prairie-lined access road to the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Once there, visitors have options; walk one of the three trails – prairie, woodland or savanna, or drive the Prairie Wildlife Drive loop that includes the gravel road through the elk and bison enclosure. Each offers something different.

On this picture perfect cloudless mid-June day, Buckardt Thomas steps on the crushed rock half-mile loop savanna trail, binoculars slung over her shoulder, ready to start identifying birds.

Orchard oriole, eastern kingbird, Baltimore oriole, eastern bluebirds, field sparrows, red-headed woodpecker, eastern wood-pewee, wood thrush.

“Just at this refuge is a lot of variety,” she said. “But the cool thing is, the expanse of the area. Large expanses support area-sensitive birds, like bobolinks and upland sandpipers that need larger areas to nest and raise their young.”

Dickcissels, meadowlarks, Henslow’s sparrows can be heard from the grasslands. The savanna – an open oak woodland with prairie understory – supports other unique species including barn owls. Dead trees provide important habitat for cavity nesters, like eastern bluebirds, great-crested flycatchers, eastern screech owls, and wood ducks that use old cavities because they can’t build their own.

“If you’re new to birding, this is a great place to just go for a walk, whether you know what you’re hearing or not, you’re just bombarded by sound,” she said. May and June are the noisy time when birds are active, hunting insects to feed their young.

“I like to walk the prairie loop (by the visitor center) and the savanna loop and drive the bison enclosure and that usually takes a few hours.”

Driving slowly east on the gravel road through the bison enclosure, Buckardt Thomas has her window down listening. Grasshopper sparrows (sounds like insects), Henslow’s sparrows, she said. “Grasshopper sparrows like open grassland and are often found in the area near the bison where the grass is a bit shorter,” she said.

Chichaqua Bottoms Area

Heading north from Neal Smith towards Chichaqua Bottoms and Chichaqua Wildlife Area on county road S27, the road passes by the 26-mile-long Chichaqua Valley Trail, a converted railroad line between Valeria and Bondurant. Chichaqua Bottoms and Chichaqua Wildlife Area follow along the old channel of the South Skunk River before expanding at the main Polk County managed Chichaqua Bottoms area.

On the north edge of U.S. Hwy. 65, five miles east of Bondurant, is a parking lot close to a universally accessible viewing platform overlooking a wetland with stationary spotting scopes. A cedar waxwing flew to the east. Here she identified indigo buntings, dickcissels, common yellowthroats, red-winged blackbirds, robins, meadowlarks and cedar waxwings.

Continuing north, a recently restored oxbow on the old South Skunk River channel at NE 118th Ave. was buzzing with activity. Cottonwoods and silver maples – tree species that do well in moist soils – tower over this spot. The restored natural vegetation around the oxbow will take a few more years to get to its natural state.

Dozens of dragonflies are flying just above the water surface, busily hunting food. Baltimore orioles, American redstarts, northern cardinals, indigo bunting, white-breasted nuthatch, red-bellied woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, warbling vireo, yellow warbler and yellow-billed cuckoo can be heard. “It’s very birdy,” she said.

Habitat at Chichaqua is a mix of ag fields, wetlands, prairie, small streams, bottomlands and oxbows, alongside developed areas, consisting of a campground, birding blind, dog trial area and more.

At the campground, birders can walk a short, mowed trail, view wetlands and hear eastern kingbirds, willow flycatchers, wood ducks, and red-winged blackbirds.

Prothonotary warblers nest at Chichaqua, which is unique to central Iowa. More common to the Mississippi River, these warblers nest in tree cavities; one of only two warbler species to do so and the only one in Iowa. “We don’t get them often in central Iowa, so that’s neat,” she said.

Chichaqua also hosts Smith longspurs on specific shortgrass areas during migration and northern harriers and short-eared owls can be seen soaring low over the grasslands in winter.


Preventing bird collisions

The visitor center at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge has UV dots on the outside of their large windows to reduce bird-window collisions. Along NE 118th Ave., spiraled bird flight diverters were added about every 10 feet to the top powerline to help the birds to see the powerline.  

Bird blind

An accessible bird blind near the Chichaqua Bottoms campground provides a covered setting with benches for viewing birds up close. The blind has nine different type of feeders to attract different types of birds - platform, suet and finch - with information panels and photos of species often seen here. The feeders are about 10 feet from the blind allowing for excellent viewing.

Birds will visit the feeders all year, but summertime birds are more preoccupied with gathering insects to fed their young.

“They’ll come, just not as often as in the winter,” Buckardt Thomas said. “It’s a great spot to take photos and to watch them without binoculars.”

There is no dedicated parking lot so a short walk is necessary from a parking lot to the east and south.

Birding 101

  • Ask a friend who is a birder to take you
  • Pick up a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope
  • Go to for info on Iowa’s top birding locations and the birds that are either residents or migrants
  • Download a birding app, like Merlin (by Cornell Lab), Song Sleuth, BirdNet, Collins Bird Guide or Audubon Bird Guide to learn about bird calls