Outdoors

A birding paradise

Pleasant Creek SRA has more than 220 species

Iowa's state bird, the American goldfinch, is abundant along open trails at Pleasant Creek SRA. Males will be in high br
Iowa’s state bird, the American goldfinch, is abundant along open trails at Pleasant Creek SRA. Males will be in high breeding plumage this time of year, such as this male recently photographed at the north end of Strawn Road. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area is located approximately five miles north of Palo.

The SRA offers many outdoor activities, such as picnicking, horseback riding, camping, fishing, hunting and hiking. There is an 8.1-mile multiuse trail that circles the entire lake, most of which is in Linn County. The westernmost portion of the trail is in Benton County.

Bird-watching is a popular activity at the park year-round. Diverse aquatic and terrestrial habitat has helped produce a list of at least 223 different bird species. Aside the many summer nesters at the SRA, spring and fall offer excellent bird viewing during migration.

Rare birds tend to occasionally show up. The lake once simultaneously hosted all three scoter (sea duck) species in late March of 2011. It also has hosted a Clark’s grebe and prairie warbler. Large concentrations of common loon may be seen in the fall. Diving and puddle ducks tend to be most numerous in March and April.

The best summer birding is along the southern and western margin of the lake. An 80-acre prairie, as well as shrub land and upland forest, provide three key habitats for nesting birds. Specialty breeders to the SRA include yellow-breasted chat, white-eyed vireo, Bell’s vireo, blue-winged warbler and Henslow’s sparrow.

While summer can offer great opportunities for birding, it also can be very hot. Insects also may be prevalent. Beat the heat by getting out in the early morning. Bug Soother applied to the head and neck will help keep gnats at bay. Permethrin-treated clothes, especially boots, socks and pants, can greatly reduce the risk of ticks. Aside the annoying insects, another nice thing to look for while hiking these trails is a great diversity of insects.

Access to Pleasant Creek SRA (via Strawn Road) — Take Blairs Ferry Road to Palo and turn north onto Hollenbeck Road. Take Hollenbeck Road to Bear Creek Road, which is a turn west. Bear Creek Road will intersect with Strawn Road, a north turn.

Strawn Road has some good birding stops along the way. Upon turning on Strawn Road, the first shrubby fence line (on the east side of the road about 1/5 mile north of the Bear Creek Road/Strawn Road intersection) has nesting Bell’s vireo. Listen for their distinctive, scratchy song.

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Eventually the west side of the road becomes wooded (well past the cemetery on the west side of the road). This is where the birding starts to get productive. Take the road more slowly at this point, but be cautious of traffic. A pasture is opposite this first woodland location and offers birds such as indigo bunting, common yellowthroat, dickcissel and eastern meadowlark. On the wooded side listen for eastern wood-pewee, redheaded woodpecker and wood thrush.

The SRA is just north up the hill.

BIRD HIKES

Prairie bowl area (no specified distance)

— Targets: Henslow’s sparrow, bobolink, grasshopper sparrow, eastern kingbird, eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, sedge wren, Bell’s vireo

— Access: Take Strawn Road north until you see a sign that reads “End County Maintenance.” This sign will appear as you are entering the SRA. Immediately after the sign is a right turn. Take this road all the way until it ends at a horse stable. Parking is available around the stable. This spot offers a great vantage point of the prairie bowl. Currently, there does not appear to be mowed trails, however, much of the grass is not as tall because more recent prairie burns. You will see an access road that is gated off south of the horse stable. Take either the access road along the perimeter of the prairie/forest habitat or hike out into the prairie. Taking the perimeter access road offers a nice mix of forest and grassland birds. Part of the multiuse trail runs along the eastern side of the prairie bowl. Access the east side by taking a turn west at the intersection of Lewis Bottoms Road with Pleasant Creek Road. Take Pleasant Creek Road until the road is closed off with a gate. Park here, but don’t block the gate. The multiuse trail will be immediately to the west of the parking.

— A sturdy, waterproof/water-resistant type of mud boot or hiking boot is recommended. Also, long pants are recommended if hiking out into the prairie is desired.

— These trails have a combination of flat, easier walking combined with areas of harder, uneven walking.

End of Strawn Road loop trail (2 miles of mostly trail and some road hiking)

— Targets: Blue-winged warbler, white-eyed vireo, yellow-breasted chat, yellow warbler, American redstart, field sparrow

— Access: Take Strawn Road north all the way until it ends at a boat ramp along the lake. West of the boat ramp is a parking lot. On the west side of the parking lot is a nondescript trailhead leading west. At wetter times there may be a wide muddy creek to cross, so waterproof/water-resistant mud boots or hiking boots are recommended. Hike west through shrub lands, looking and listening for yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, yellow-breasted chat and field sparrow. You will eventually walk under power lines, which is roughly the border of Linn and Benton counties. Once you come to an intersection with a post labeled with the number 4, take a left (south). This trail leads into the uplands, which are wooded and technically part of the multiuse trail. Look and listen for American restart, white-eyed vireo, blue-winged warbler as well as more common species like eastern-wood pewee, wood thrush, eastern towhee and rose-breasted grosbeak. Once the trail intersects Strawn Road, take a left and hike back down to the parking lot along the road. This road portion of the hike can often be the best place for white-eyed vireo.

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— If you are not able to see or hear yellow-breasted chats along the aforementioned shrub land portion, that habitat continues west into Benton County. Instead of turning left to the upland portion of the trail where the post is labeled with the number 4, continue west through additional shrub land habitat. This is technically the multiuse trail. A couple chats were located in early June closer to where the trail passes close to 33rd Avenue Drive in Benton County. They were just downhill from that particular area. If you want to target the chats in particular, it may be a better idea to start your search by accessing the trail from 33rd Avenue Drive.

— These trails have a combination of flat, easier walking combined with areas of harder, uneven walking.

Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com

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