Posted: July 15, 2020
Cardinal Marsh, an Iowa DNR Wildlife Management Area, offers lots of outdoor adventures, including hiking, hunting, fishing, and paddling. But for this article, I’m focusing on my personal favorite reason to visit Cardinal Marsh: birdwatching.
I love going to Cardinal Marsh during spring migration season, so earlier this year, my family headed out for a few “homeschool” field trips. I brought a blanket and planned to find a nice spot to sit and watch the northern shovelers and blue-winged teals. It was quickly apparent, however, that two young boys with pent-up quarantine energy did not want to sit and quietly watch anything.
It didn’t matter, because Cardinal Marsh is a great place for birdwatchers of all levels and—just as importantly—for whomever might be accompanying birdwatchers. The trails are wide, flat, and mowed, though I still recommend long pants and closed-toe shoes in case you want to go off trail or happen to visit in-between mowings. The diverse habitats found across the 1,200 acres—marshes, ponds, prairies, and woodlands—provide homes for all kinds of wildlife and enough change in scenery to keep hikes interesting.
Throughout spring, huge numbers of migrating birds stop over at Cardinal Marsh. Even if you can’t identify them, the flocks of hundreds of snow geese, American white pelicans, sandpipers, and ducks of all kinds are a pretty amazing sight. As the season progresses, the big groups continue north and things quiet down a bit. Many birds get a little sneakier as they try to protect their nests and young.
But that doesn’t mean Cardinal Marsh isn’t worth a visit at times other than spring. Right now, it’s full of sparrows, songbirds, raptors, turtles, butterflies, and dragonflies. And, lucky for us, a few really impressive birds—sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans—hang out at Cardinal Marsh until they head south in fall. Nothing grabs your attention more quickly than the prehistoric-elephant-trumpet call of a sandhill crane, even if you’re a six-year-old busy poking sticks in the mud.
For most of the last century, both sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans faced dire futures. They were hunted for meat and feathers and the wetlands they needed for nesting were drained. By the 1930s, trumpeter swans were on the brink of extinction and were extirpated (completely gone) from Iowa. Thanks to wetland restoration and species reintroduction efforts, populations are recovering, and both have again begun nesting at Cardinal Marsh.
There are several access points and parking areas at Cardinal Marsh. A favorite entry point for birdwatching is a parking lot off Madison Road with a trail that winds through the ponds. The Iowa DNR has maps of Cardinal Marsh available online.
If you plan to visit Cardinal Marsh, keep in mind that it is a public hunting area, so pay attention to hunting seasons and regulations. To protect ground-nesting birds, dogs are not allowed at the marsh between March 15 and July 15.