Once known as “the slough,” what we now call Cedar Lake has seen days of better and worse.
Centuries ago it was a thriving ecosystem providing sustenance for people in the region. Near the turn of the 20th century the lake was putrid and rancid, plagued by the influx of sewage water and other industrial activities.
However, in April of 1911 the area that is now Cedar Lake was purchased by the Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Electric and Railway & Light Company with the promise to make the lake beautiful once again. Thanks to current organizations like Friends of Cedar Lake, the area is making great strides toward becoming suitable for wildlife and enjoyable for people.
Water from McLoud Run, known as Iowa’s only urban trout stream, is diverted into Cedar Lake, where it provides the clean, fresh water needed to sustain thriving aquatic and surrounding terrestrial ecosystems.
Many people know Cedar Lake as great place for fishing and biking. The lake and its surrounding environs also support a wide variety of bird life.
Next to Pleasant Creek SRA, Cedar Lake is probably Linn County’s second-best bird-watching hot spot. Some of the oldest bird occurrence data stretches back to the early 1930s. However, the majority of historical bird sightings start in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, there are at least 210 documented birds species at Cedar Lake.
Each season brings new birding flavor to the lake. As long as there is open water in colder months, waterfowl and gulls can thrive. Summer at the lake has its breeding residents, many of which are common yard birds and waterfowl. Some of the most exciting times occur during spring and fall migration.
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September at Cedar Lake can be productive. Many bird-watchers consider the northern reaches of Cedar Lake a “migrant trap.” The lush wooded area at the northern end, likely nourished by the waters of McLoud Run, has a propensity to attract migrating birds and keep them there.
This is likely a stoppage point for many of the same individual birds every spring and fall. It is a place where they can spend several days feeding in order to build the energy reserves necessary for their next leg of migration.
The creek also offers a nice place to bath and cool off during warmer hours of the day.
Park at the parking lot on Shaver Rd NE. This can be accessed by exiting off I-380 and/or taking H Ave NE to Shaver Rd NE. Turn south from H Ave NE onto Shaver Rd NE and the parking lot is immediately on the right near restroom facilities and a shelter house.
Parking also is available along Shaver Rd NE.
The trees around the restroom facilities and near the edge of the lake can be considered the southernmost part of this particular bird-watching hike. Trees right near the lake, just north of Sag Wagon Deli & Brew, can sometimes have warblers and other passerine migrants, such as flycatchers and vireos.
Gradually walk north along the paved trail looking in all the trees, including ornamental pines on the right (east) side of the trail. Look for Cape May warbler and other warbler species. The trail eventually enters a wooded area, which eventually intersects McLoud Run.
The wooded area continues roughly north until there are three popular options:
1. Continue north along more wooded habitat.
2. Turn left at the trail intersection and hike down the west side of Cedar Lake.
3. Turn around and slowly check the trail again back to the parking area.
If there is good warbler activity the first option usually best, especially if time if more limited. If you choose the first option, the woods eventually open up. If you do the second option, you can always continue walking around the lake counterclockwise where the trail eventually leads back to the parking area.
Make sure to pay attention to the lake and the shorelines, as well. There can be interesting birds on the lake and especially on the sandbars at the northern end. Gulls, terns, shorebirds, pelicans, cormorants along with various waterfowl also can be seen.
NOTE: Many people from Cedar Rapids and neighboring communities are still dealing with the aftermath of the August 10th derecho. In many ways, our communities will never be the same. This is especially true for the trees and associated types of birdwatching. There is untold devastation in parks where woodlands provided essential bird habitat. While the disaster has especially left its mark in the Eastern Iowa Corridor, birds are a fairly resilient group of organisms and will adapt. Moving forward, I apologize in advance if my descriptions of particular places, especially areas where forests or particular patches of trees were the main attraction, does not match up to the new reality. As time progresses and parks open back up, we should all get a good idea of the current state of our trees and affiliated bird habitat(s).
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Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geoscience at the University of Iowa. He lives in Marion with his wife and son. Email email@example.com with birding related questions, including questions about activities.