Wild and wonderful wetlands

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Wetland habitat is critical for waterfowl and lots of other game and non-game species, especially as fall migrations of ducks and geese get under way. Otter Creek Marsh, located east of Tama and east of Chelsea in Tama County, has good supplies of water within its four impoundment areas north of Otter Creek and three to the south. Otter Creek is a 3,360-acre wetland complex owned and operated the Iowa DNR. The wildlife personnel that oversee day-to-day operations have a huge job of water level management throughout the year. Towards fall, water levels are increased slowly in each pool to give birds a place to rest, feed and get ready for the next leg of their southward journeys. White-fronted geese are just one species that observers and hunters may encounter at Otter Creek.

OTTER CREEK MARSH owes its history to many geological events that shaped the flat floodplain land of the Iowa River valley east of the City of Tama. Over thousands of years of time, water leaving the land surface cut the river channel in a series of long meandering twists and turns. As some of those old channels became separated from a new cut and filled channel, many low lying areas and old river oxbows filled with water if rains were plentiful. If not enough rain fell, these ephemeral ponds could dry out. But in the long run, during most years, there were always backwater ponds holding water. And the water attracted waterfowl.

Hunters quickly adapted to this bonanza of circumstances to hunt ‘honey holes’ filled with fall flying ducks. While the Iowa River may have held lots of ducks and geese on its exposed sandbars, the sloughs, ponds and marshes away from the river were highly sought after. The best shooting for mallards was in these areas. And in addition, teal, pintails, gadwalls and widgeons liked those shallow wetlands.

Lots of wet areas were lost to other land use competition during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But thanks to the foresight of conservation personnel, the then Iowa Conservation Commission saw a need for a large waterfowl area on the Iowa River corridor/flyway. Planning for a wetland complex began in the 1950s for the land between Belle Plaine and Tama. A two-mile wide floodplain in this area fit the bill and it was chosen as the site for Otter Creek Marsh.

Land purchases began in 1960 and 1963 with the first parcels totaling 2,280 acres. Construction started in 1965 and was initially hampered by too much moisture. But by October 1966, over one-half million cubic feet of soil had been dug, and shaped into the long dikes/levees to hold water in various pools. Between each pool and Otter Creek itself, stop-log water gates allowed areas to be filled or emptied as required to assist and manage aquatic vegetation. Additional land acquisitions took place in 1975 and later to eventually grow to 3,360 acres, with the potential for 1,000 acres of that to be water.

To help hold waterfowl that need a place to rest, segments three and five are refuge, signed to indicate to everyone that those pools were inviolate spaces. No entry of any kind was allowed during critical times of the year for waterfowl. This time frame is typically between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15 of each year. The purpose is to allow thousands of waterfowl a safe place for feeding and resting.

To accommodate hunters and others of the public that desired to go to those pools were they were allowed, 11 parking areas were designated. One parking site is closed where it provided access to a refuge area of pool three. Otherwise, hunters had several options of where to enter or boat into areas open for hunting. During plentiful water years, duck populations can accumulate at peak times to more than 15,000 birds. The marsh serves its purpose every spring and every fall for all kinds of wildlife. Trappers after the pelts of raccoon, beaver, muskrat and mink found Otter Creek Marsh a good place to practice their craft. And fishermen could also avail themselves with access to the Iowa River and even in some of the marshes pools. Bird watchers are always attracted to wetlands to watch of familiar species and perhaps the errant new comer bird that got off course. Eagles are common now and have several nests close by. One can also look for owls, marsh hawks, bobolinks, yellow-headed blackbirds, cormorants and many types of shorebirds. School groups and even college field trips have used this unique land area to enhance wildlife studies.

Otter Creek Marsh is a valuable piece of land for wildlife. People get a tremendous amount of quality outdoor recreation at natural areas like this. Learning to like wetlands is part of the process. So just as the forefathers along the Iowa River over 100 years ago appreciated the old oxbows and water filled sloughs, the hunting heritage lives on with our present generation of folks. Watching the sunrise on a frosty foggy morning as ones decoy spread is well laid out in hopes of catching the eye of ducks or geese make all the effort worth it. The vision of many conservation minded folks many decades ago continues to pay off for us today.

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GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE ( Anser albifrons) are just one species of goose that will make its southward migration into central Iowa. This goose gets its name from a big white patch of feathers at the base of its bill. And its chest feathers have a blotchy pattern that earns this species the nickname “specklebelly.” Bright orange legs and pinkish bills are a notable standards while the plumage of the bird is mostly mottled gray colors. They typically weigh in at 4-7 pounds. Males tend to be larger than females.

There are five noted sub-species of white-fronts. Depending upon what part of the globe they like best, they can be found In Europe and the far north of Asia. Interior northwest Canada is A. a. gambeli. There is also the Tule goose or the Pacific white-fronted goose. From Alaska is the largest subspecies named A. a. elgasi. And Greenland has naming rites to a darker plumaged white-front called Anser albifrons flavirostris. Mid-continent white-fronts nest in Alaska and all across the Canadian north. In the fall an estimated 700,000 birds will begin their journey over our central states (including the west half of Iowa) toward the destination of the Gulf Coast of Mexico and into northern Mexico.

Not all populations of white-fronts begin a migration at the same time. Just the mid-continent group has six different breeding areas that include interior Alaska, the North Slope of Alaska, western Northwest Territories, and western, central or eastern Nunavut. There is just enough time delay and difference for white-front departures each fall when they leave a breeding area. But when they do make a push to head south, it may be very long distances between stop-overs.

A mated pair will stay together for many years, And their young migrate with the adults as a family perhaps even to stay together for several years afterwards. The oldest white-front goose known was banded in Nunavut in 1975 and later recaptured in Louisiana 25 years and 6 months later in 1998. If you are fortunate enough to see, or hear the distinctive high pitched cackle of this goose, enjoy the moment as they pass overhead.

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Reminder: If you take the on-line HUNTER SAFETY COURSE between now and Wednesday night, then and only then can you attend the field day final session on Oct. 25 from 6-9 p.m. The location is at the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm, 2359 233rd St, located west of Highland Acres Road at Marshalltown. This is likely to be the last hunter safety course for this fall. The Izaak Walton League hosted three classes already during May, June and August. Now this on-line option and field day is the final chance to get the job done. Hunter safety is required for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1972.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.