Your guide to Macbride Nature Recreation Area

Bluebird Trail, birding, photography tips and more

White-eyed vireo, once a more common nester in Eastern Iowa, are now harder to find. This individual was photographed ne
White-eyed vireo, once a more common nester in Eastern Iowa, are now harder to find. This individual was photographed near the tip of the peninsula at MRNA in late June 2020. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

A large peninsula exists where miles of trail offer excellent nature watching all times of the year, especially when it comes to the avian variety.

Work is underway to awaken a dormant ecosystem important to Iowa’s natural heritage. The location also is a haven for injured raptors.

In its 51st year, Macbride Nature Recreation Area (MNRA) is a 485-acre peninsula on Lake Macbride leased to the University of Iowa by the Army Corps of Engineers. While the park offers a nice variety of habitats, remnants of an original plant ecosystem, savannah, now lie covered by woodland herbaceous layers.

Iowa’s savannah once existed at the borders of forest and prairies. The natural burning of prairies also would burn into the savannah zone, where trees like burr oak and shagbark hickory were resistant to the fire. The key to this environment was not only the burning, but the higher abundance of light that was able to shine through the trees to the understory.

Restoration at MNRA using selective tree removal and managed burnings is underway to clear the area of the vegetation not native to the savannah. These burnings are essentially “waking up” the dormant savannah plant species that currently have no room or light necessary for growth.

Because much of this native savannah habitat is either extirpated or extinct from Iowa, the work being done is vital in re-establishing the land back to its natural state.

In addition to the restoration of savannah, MNRA has a nice variety of habitat providing excellent birding in spring, summer and fall. In the summer, dense hardwood forest with closed canopy hosts species such as pileated woodpecker, yellow-throated vireo, scarlet tanager, and northern parula.


The Bluebird Trail offers a walk-through shrub-type and edge environments. This trail offers the chance at seeing specialties such as yellow-billed cuckoo and orchard oriole. Although less commonly seen, white-eyed vireo and yellow-breasted chat prefer the scrub habitat. Make sure to check any grove of pine trees, especially white pine, for nesting yellow-throated warblers.

In the birding doldrums of winter, MNRA maintains one of the best bird blinds in the Eastern Iowa Corridor. The coldest months are a great time to visit the feeders to see red-headed woodpecker, tufted titmouse, several finch species, and if you are lucky, Carolina wren.

MNRA also is host to the University of Iowa’s Environmental Education Programs, which include wildlife camps and School of the Wild. These are offered during summer, winter and spring breaks. MNRA’s Iowa Raptor Project (IRP) offers a home to unreleasable birds of prey and also conducts research and education.

If you have never closely seen raptor species such as owls, hawks, eagles, falcons and vultures this may be a great opportunity. If you feel like an extended stay, camping is available.

Over time, the restoration of savannah at MNRA will undoubtedly change the makeup of birds in select areas of the park. This outcome, however, will be special. It will allow visitors to see bird communities the way they once were in Iowa hundreds of years ago.

Bluebird Trail

Upon entering the park from Mehaffey Bridge Road, follow signs to the bird blind area and park at that designated parking area.

Instead of walking south toward the bird blinds, hike southwest through an open area until you reach an access road trail. This road leads about a quarter mile through woods to the Bluebird Trail head.

Take an immediate left at the trail head and then a right at the next fork. You will wind through scrubby habitat. Look and listen for orchard oriole, white-eyed vireo, and yellow-breasted chat.

This trail ends at a four-way intersection. Any way you go will eventually get you back to this spot. This trail network at the tip of the peninsula is a patchwork of wooded and scrubby habitat. Listen for pileated woodpecker in forest between the trail and the lake. In the stands of white pine, listen for yellow-throated warbler.


The Bluebird Trail is lined with several tree swallow nesting boxes. Be careful around the boxes in the late spring and summer because adult tree swallows will try and “dive-bomb” anyone lingering near their nest. When outside of these “nest protection zones,” look for low perched tree swallows along the trail. They can be a very photogenic, especially in the morning and evening sunlight.

Park facts

— Open April 1 through Oct. 31 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; open Nov. 1 through March 31 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

— Miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails

— Bird blind with well-stocked feeders all months of the year

— Five-minute drive west of Solon, 15 miles north of Iowa City; entrance is located on Mehaffey Bridge Road

— Although the park has been closed to the public for parts of 2020, it reopened July 13

— Osprey were first reintroduced into Iowa at MNRA

Photography advice

There comes a time when a lens surface must be cleaned. If a lens gets too dirty it can hinder the ability of that lens to focus properly. Here are some tips, in order, for cleaning a lens:

— Use a soft-bristle brush or air blowing bulb to remove as much dust and dirt as possible.

— Apply a few drops or sprays of lens cleaning solution to the lens surface.

— With a lens tissue or no-scratch cleaning cloth, starting from the center of the lens, gently wipe towards the outside using a spiraling motion until you reach the outermost edge.

— This will remove things like fingerprints, grime, oils and residue left from dried raindrops.

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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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.