Shaggy bovine beasts of the prairie

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG - The American Bison is indeed home on its range. In this case, this herd is taking on the winter as they always do, without any difficulty, at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. The other bison, hand sculpted by Warren County Conservation Board staff many years ago, is made of barbed wire over a steel frame. Closer to home, at the Green Castle Recreation Area, an eight acre pasture holds a herd of four animals. These impressive animals are reminders of times long ago when vast herds of bison grazed on vast native grasslands.

A wintertime great-get-away is close by. Not too far southwest of Prairie City is the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. A block of land originally comprising 3,600 acres was originally acquired by Iowa Power and Light Company (now MidAmerica Energy) to build a nuclear power plant. That plant was not built. So what was to become of the land?

Well, long story short, Iowa Congressman Neal Smith championed the idea of creating a replica of tall grass prairie in the rolling hills of Jasper County. In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service was able to acquire the land, and over time, additional parcels were added from willing sellers to bring the tract up to 8,654 acres.

Extensive native grassland research and plantings took place to restore, manage and upgrade this site to make it into a prairie relic with a serious mission. That work continues in a never ending quest for improving these native grasslands.

Last weekend, this scribe made the journey to see bison at Neal Smith NWR. I did find about 40 animals along a hillside. They were grazing contentedly as if they had been there for a long long time.

Their ancestors had been here for a very long time — in fact, for many thousands of years prior to and largely after the retreat of the last glacier systems melted away. Bison bones, skulls and Native American tools all attest to bison being one of the majestic mega fauna of the Midwest, and even today, bison skulls are found along eroded stream sides where they have reappeared after being buried by the land for thousands of years.

And while I was observing bison, I also kept an eye out for elk. Approximately 20 elk may be found within the drive through pasture. A tall wildlife proof fence encloses about 700 acres where the bison and elk may be observed. I did not find the elk this time. Bison, however, were easy to locate so I concentrated on photography of these animals. My next visit to this NWR will offer new opportunities.

Neal Smith NWR has a Prairie Learning Center, a nature center devoted to all things related to native grasslands. Included are displays and information about the soil itself, the many hundreds of grasses and/or flowering plants, and abundant insects, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. A full sized bison mount can be observed close up, and lots of information is available on how bison sustained a population of Native American peoples.

Tall grass prairies stretched from southern Canada into the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Further west, as natural rainfall becomes less, mid-grass prairie ecotypes were noted by botanists, and even further west, short-grass prairies.

All are native grasslands, but different in respect to what could survive on the soils where less rainfall existed. On these grasslands roamed many large animals. Among them were bison, of course, and elk, deer and pronghorns. Predators followed prey in the natural scheme of things. Native Americans survived in part because of bison and other large animals they hunted. Natural predators included the wolf, bear, coyote, and mountain lion.

From the time of Iowa’s pre-settlement, Iowa’s landscape was covered by about 85 percent tallgrass prairie. Thirteen percent was woodland and forest, and two percent was water either in rivers, glacially cut lakes and wetland complexes. Iowa’s rich soils led to extensive conversion by mankind. Native prairie lands largely disappeared.

However, a few isolated remnants continued to survive in odd corners, along old railroad corridors, or by the foresight of botanists that knew a few tracts of native grasslands should be found and set aside as preserves. Iowa’s native prairies are now less than 1/10 of one percent of what once existed.

Tallgrass prairie lands all across the Midwest provide a diversity of wildlife: hundreds of plant species, over 350 species of birds, nearly 100 mammals, scores of amphibians and reptiles and lots of fish. Insect diversity ranges in the thousands.

Neal Smith NWR is just one of 520 refuges managed for unique habitats and the wildlife that calls these places home. All the land with national wildlife refuges accounts for about 93 million acres throughout the United States.

The mission of the Neal Smith NWR is to increase the diversity of plants and animals by restoring tallgrass prairie; to increase public knowledge and understanding of grasslands; to increase scientific knowledge; and to provide a diverse series of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

* * * * * * * *

Fall and early winter bird watching can become a serious hobby. Ask Mark Prescholdt of Liscomb. He has been involved with what he calls the Grammer Grove Hawkwatch for many decades.

Grammer Grove is one of the Marshall County Conservation areas located along the Iowa River about three miles southwest of Liscomb. This 121 acre park has upland hilly terrain and river floodplain flat ground. In addition, Grammer Grove offers vantage points to observe the Iowa River valley especially in the fall and early winter as migrating raptors fly southward. Keeping track of the various species during this time of year adds a database of hawks, eagles, falcon, vultures and kestrels who follow the river valley during migration.

For 2021, Mark and his fellow counters Ken and Mary Ann Gregory, Phil Tetzloff, Andy Spellman, Diana Pesek, Tom Dougherty and a few others visited Grammer Grove between early September and into mid December. They kept track of the species of raptors they observed in the sky over this park, and their field notes have a wide variety of birds of prey from a combined 299 hours of observations over 67 days between Sept. 8 and Dec. 16. A total of 15 different species were observed on this 32nd year of conducting a local hawk watch.

So what species ended up on the list? In descending order by most to least, here is that list. A total of 1,798 broad-winged hawks were observed, followed by turkey vultures at 782. Next were Bald Eagles at 611. Red-tailed hawks came in next at 425, and sharp-shinned hawks tallied 377. From there, the list shows cooper’s hawks with 36, northern harriers at 29, ospreys at 19, American kestrels at 11, merlins at eight, peregrine falcons at six, golden eagles at five, rough-legged hawks at three, red-shouldered hawks at two and swainson’s hawk at one.

There were, as always, a few a bit too difficult to identify other than to the family group. Unknowns included a few buteos, falcons, eagles and others. Overall, these hardy Grammer Grove observers saw 4,138 raptors to come in at the fourth highest year. For historical purposes, the biggest past year had 6,580.

Peak days of observation were Sept. 21 and 22 with 1463 and 225, respectively. On all other days, it was possible to see well over or close to one hundred birds. Information on this hawk watch can be looked at by going to the website data@hawkcount.org. Thanks Mark for sharing your hobby with the readers of Outdoors Today. Keep up the good work.

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Other big birds getting lots of attention are bald eagles. They are hard to miss and always impressive. Iowa hosts lots of eagles, according to a statewide survey and count held every late December and into early January. Forty-four states have observers.

In Iowa, the Mississippi River is always a major place for eagle watching to see wintering birds. Resident eagles are joined by other eagles from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Eagles can be seen along the entire eastern border of Iowa.

In the far southeast corner in Keokuk County, this weekend is the 38th Bald Eagle Days celebration. However, inland anywhere in Iowa, it is possible to see bald eagles. Our own tiny stretch of the Iowa River holds a few wintering eagles, and so does every other large major river in the state.

The trend line on the eagle population grew well in the 1990s and leveled off in the 2010s. Observation data seems to indicate that Iowa may be at a population capacity for bald eagles. The number of nests is about 500 across Iowa, and Marshall County may have about a dozen nests. Look for eagles at, near or on nests. Those territories will be well guarded if that nest will be active again this year.

Garry Brandenburg is the

retired director of the Marshall

County Conservation Board. He

is a graduate of Iowa State University

with a BS degree in Fish

& Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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