Ultimate Birding in Iowa: Do Corn and Birds Mix?

When you think of Iowa, you think of corn. And for the most part, that’s a realistic thought. However, there’s more to the state of Iowa than just cattle feed. There are hundreds of species of birds there too which makes birding in Iowa just as much fun as anywhere else.

American Goldfinch - Iowa state bird
American Goldfinch – Iowa state bird

Photo Credit

The bulk of what you’ll see in this ultimate bird watching list comes from the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union (IOU…gotta love that) website: IowaBirds.org. At that site is a county by county list of great, good, and fair birding sites throughout the state and a wealth of other related information too.

For each county, there is a PDF that describes the sites in the county and a PDF that serves as a checklist for that county. I wish they could have found a way to list birds by site instead of by county.

Many of the sites are smaller county parks, marshes, and sloughs. Most of those I decided not to include in this list because there just isn’t enough information about them available. Not that they are bad sites to visit.

While I am calling this the ultimate birding in Iowa list, realize that there are many places that are not included here. I hope I’ve managed to retain the more popular ones.

Wherever possible, I’ve listed birds that have been known to be found at a site. In a few cases, this was not possible, but I included the site anyway due to its potential for good bird watching.

Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, is nearly in the center of the state – just a bit south of center. So I have divided the birding sites in this list into four sections based on their location relative to Des Moines – northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast.

Wherever you decide to do your birding, don’t forget to take your best binoculars with you. You’ll miss a lot without them.

Birding Sites Northwest of Des Moines

Harrier Marsh Wildlife Management Area
Location: Southeast of Ogden
Size: 423 acres
Birds: Virginia Rails, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, Yellow Rails, Nelson’s Sparrows, LeConte’s Sparrows, Lapland Longspurs
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Virginia Rail
Virginia Rail

Photo Credit

High Trestle Trail
Location: Between Madrid and Woodward
Size: 25 miles long
Birds: waterbirds, raptors
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: High Trestle Trail

Holst State Forest
Location: Fraser
Size: 313 acres
Birds: warblers, forest birds, broad-winged hawk
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Ledges State Park
Location: South of Boone
Size: 1200 acres
Birds: warblers, vireos, woodpeckers, forest sparrows, raptors
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Pickerel Lake Wildlife Management Area
Location: East of Sioux Rapids
Size: 427 acres
Birds: Coots, Pied-billed grebes, Ruddy ducks, Mallards, Wood ducks
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Swan Lake State Park
Location: East of Carroll
Size: 510 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Swan Lake State Park

Big Bend Wildlife Area
Location: Northwest of Redfield at the end of Cadet Road
Size: 605 acres
Birds: wild turkey, pheasant, quail, wood duck, bald eagles, osprey, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Big Bend Wildlife Area

Big Spirit Lake
Location: Northwest of Mason City on the Minnesota border
Size: n/a
Birds: waterfowl, loons, grebes, pelicans
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Cayler Prairie State Preserve
Location: North of Spencer
Size: 160 acres
Birds: Burrowing Owl, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Harrier, Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink, Dickcissel, Western Meadowlark, Eastern Kingbird, Red-tailed Hawk, Sedge Wren
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Grovers Lake
Location: Northwest of Mason City straddling the Minnesota / Iowa border
Size: n/a
Birds: Canvasbacks, Rednecked Grebes, Black-crowned Night Herons
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Kettleson Hogsback
Location: Northwest of Mason City
Size: 2000 acres
Birds: 276 species recorded. Trumpeter Swan, Ruddy Duck, Red-necked Grebe, American Bittern, Upland Sandpiper, Black Tern, Black-billed Cuckoo, Belted Kingfisher, Willow Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Marsh Wren, Cedar Waxwing, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Dickcissel, Western Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, Orchard Oriole, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, American White Pelican, American Golden-Plover, Franklin’s Gull, American Pipit, Snow Bunting, Nelson’s Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Spring Run Wetland Complex
Location: Northwest of Mason City
Size: 4800 acres
Birds: See checklist
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Bays Branch Wildlife Management Area
Location: Panora
Size: 990 acres
Birds: waterfowl
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Sheeder Prairie State Preserve
Location: Northwest of Guthrie Center
Size: n/a
Birds: 96 species
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Springbrook State Park
Location: North of Guthrie Center
Size: 920 acres
Birds: “Almost every kind of bird that visits Iowa can be found here.”
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Lewis and Clark State Park
Location: North of Onawa
Size: n/a
Birds: woodland and marsh birds
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Lewis and Clark State Park

Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center
Location: Sioux City
Size: 1089 acres (Stone State Park)
Birds: n/a
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9:00-4:30; Sunday 1:00-4:30
Admission: n/a
Website: Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center

Southwood Conservation Area
Location: Smithland
Size: n/a
Birds: Louisiana Waterthrush, Whip-O-Wills, Eastern Screech Owl, warblers, sparrows, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Southwood Conservation Area

Dewey’s Pasture State Game Management Area
Location: West of Mason City
Size: 5390 acres
Birds: ducks, Western Grebe, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, Forster’s Tern, Black Tern, Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow, Bobolink, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Trumpeter Swan, American White Pelican, Northern Harrier, Sandhill Crane, Bald Eagle, Pied-billed Grebe, Canada Goose, Blue-winged Teal, Willow Flycatcher, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Cormorant, Kingfisher
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Dewey’s Pasture State Game Management Area

Birding Sites Northeast of Des Moines

Effigy Mounds National Monument
Location: North of Marquette on the Mississippi River
Size: 2300 sq. mi.
Birds: See the bird list (PDF)
Hours: Usually around 8-5, varies by season
Admission: Free
Website: Effigy Mounds

Tundra Swan
Tundra Swan

Photo Credit

Lansing Wildlife Management Area
Location: North of Lansing on the Mississippi River
Size: 1927 acres
Birds: turkey, grouse, dove
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Mississippi River Lock & Dam 9
Location: North of Harpers Ferry
Size: n/a
Birds: Tundra swan
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Yellow River State Forest
Location: West of Harpers Ferry
Size: 8500 acres
Birds: Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Veery, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, American Redstart, Cerulean Warbler, Scarlet Tanager
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Cedar Lake
Location: Nashua
Size: 470 acres
Birds: waterfowl, loons, grebes, herons, gulls, terns
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Cedar Lake

Backbone State Park
Location: South of Strawberry Point
Size: 2000 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

FDR Park
Location: Dubuque
Size: n/a
Birds: Whip-poor-will, Fox Sparrow
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Mines of Spain State Recreation Area
Location: Dubuque
Size: 1380 acres
Birds: Broad-winged Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Cerulean Warbler, Sedge Wren, Henslow’s Sparrow, meadowlarks, Bell’s Vireo
Hours: 4:30 AM – 10:30 PM
Admission: Free
Website: Mines of Spain

Mud Lake Park
Location: Dubuque
Size: n/a
Birds: Tundra Swan
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Mud Lake Park

White Pine Hollow State Park
Location: Northwest of Dubuque
Size: n/a
Birds: Ruffed Grouse, Acadian Flycatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Blue Grosbeak
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Beeds Lake State Park
Location: Hampton
Size: n/a
Birds: loons, ducks, grebes, terns, warblers, thrushes, sparrows
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Buffalo Basins State Wildlife Management Area
Location: Between Meservey and Alexander
Size: 145 acres
Birds: ducks, geese, swans, rails, herons, shorebirds, sparrows
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Coulter Marsh
Location: Southwest of Coulter
Size: 184 acres
Birds: ducks, geese, swans, rails, shorebirds, herons, egrets
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Pilot Knob State Park
Location: East of Forest City
Size: 700 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Indian Bluffs Wildlife Management Area
Location: East of Monticello
Size: 830 acres
Birds: Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Northern Parula
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Muskrat Slough Wildlife Management Area
Location: East of Morley
Size: n/a
Birds: American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Virginia Rail, Least Bittern, Sandhill Crane, Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Iowa Wildlife Management Areas

Wapsipicon State Park
Location: Anamosa
Size: 391 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Grimes Farm Nature Center
Location: Marshalltown
Size: 160 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Grimes Farm

Otter Creek Marsh State Wildlife Refuge
Location: Northwest of Chelsea
Size: n/a
Birds: ducks, geese, swans, hawks, Bald Eagles, shorebirds, marsh birds, Swallow-tailed Kite, Barn Owl, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Saylorville Reservoir / Lake
Location: Ankeny
Size: 5950 acres
Birds: Piping Plover, American Golden-bellied Plover, Black-bellied Plovers, Forster’s Terns, Caspian Terns, ducks, warblers, Baltimore Orioles, Orchard Orioles, Wood, Hermit Thrushes, Gray-cheeked Thrushes, sparrows, Egrets, herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Osprey, Bobolink, grassland sparrows, Red-throated Loons, Pacific Loons, Common Loons, sandpipers, dowitchers, Gulls, American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Black-tailed Gull, Iceland Gull, Little Gulls, Harlequin Duck, Mottled Ducks, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Arctic Tern, Cave Swallow, Yellow-billed Loon, Black Vulture, Gyrfalcon
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Birding Sites Southwest of Des Moines

Cold Springs State Park
Location: South of Lewis
Size: 104 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Cold Springs State Park

Common Kingfisher
Common Kingfisher

Photo Credit

Home Lake
Location: Lamoni
Size: n/a
Birds: ducks, gulls, shorebirds, kingfishers
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Lake LaShane
Location: Northwest of Lamoni
Size: n/a
Birds: ducks, shorebirds, warblers, Long-eared Owls
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Nine Eagles State Park
Location: East of Lamoni
Size: 1100 acres
Birds: Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Badger Creek State Recreation Area
Location: Southwest of Des Moines
Size: 1162 acres
Birds: American Woodcocks, Bell’s Vireo, Orchard Oriole, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Mockingbird, Harris’s Sparrow
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Hitchcock Nature Center
Location: North of Council Bluffs
Size: n/a
Birds: Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, American Kestrel, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Snow Goose, Franklin’s Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Red-headed Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Purple Martin, swallows, blackbirds, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Bobolink, Scarlet Tanager, Golden Eagle
Hours: 6:00 AM – 10:00 PM
Admission: $2.00
Website: Hitchcock Nature Area

Waubonsie State Park
Location: North of Hamburg
Size: 1990 acres
Birds: Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Eastern Whip-poor-will, White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Location: North of Omaha, Nebraska
Size: 8300 acres
Birds: Snow Geese, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Bald Eagles, Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Red-headed Woodpecker, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

Birding Sites Southeast of Des Moines

Lake Wapello State Park
Location: Northwest of Bloomfield
Size: 1150 acres
Birds: n/a
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Red-Headed Woodpecker
Red-Headed Woodpecker

Photo Credit

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
Location: East of Des Moines
Size: 8600 acres
Birds: Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink, Short-eared Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Wild Turkey, Upland Sandpiper, Willow Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Sedge Wren, Vesper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Western Meadowlark, Eastern Meadowlark, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, Lapland Longspur, Smith’s Longspur, sparrows
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9-4; Sunday noon-5
Admission: Free
Website: Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge
Location: Wapello
Size: n/a
Birds: See checklist at website
Hours: Monday-Friday 7:30-4:00
Admission: n/a
Website: Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge

Greenville Marsh
Location: Southeast of Chariton near Lake Rathbun; 420th St. and 320th Ave.
Size: n/a
Birds: Bobolink, Dickcissel, Horned Lark, Eastern Meadowlarks, Western Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Kingbird, Brown Thrasher, Bell’s Vireo
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Red Haw State Park
Location: Chariton
Size: 640 acres
Birds: Woodpeckers, orioles, bluebirds, flycatchers
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: n/a

Stephens State Forest
Location: Northeast of Chariton
Size: 15,000 acres (all units)
Birds: Pileated Woodpecker, Broadwinged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawks, Kentucky Warblers, Ovenbirds, Wood Thrush, Chuck-will’s-widow, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Lacey-Keosauqua State Park
Location: Southwest of Keosauqua
Size: 1653 acres
Birds: Worm-eating Warblers, Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Carolina Wren, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, Cerulean Warbler
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Lake Ahquabi State Park
Location: South of Indianola
Size: n/a
Birds: Summer Tanager, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: DNR site

Cone Marsh State Wildlife Management Area
Location: Conesville
Size: 728 acres
Birds: Sandhill Cranes, Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Trumpeter Swan, ducks, grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Sora, Wood Duck, Common Gallinule, Willow Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Bell’s Vireo, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Yellow Warbler, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Cone Marsh

Lake Red Rock
Location: Southeast of Des Moines
Size: 50,000 acres
Birds: ducks, loons, American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, gulls, shorebirds, terns
Hours: n/a
Admission: n/a
Website: Lake Red Rock

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