Loess Hills Day 1: Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve

The Nature Conservancy of Iowa owns and manages Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve.

The Nature Conservancy of Iowa owns and manages Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve.

Morning breaks as we gather at Broken Kettle Preserve for our Iowa Young Birders field trip.

Morning breaks as we gather at Broken Kettle Preserve for our Iowa Young Birders field trip.

Hiking to the top of the ridge.  It was rather steep and quite uneven due to it being a bison path.

Hiking to the top of the ridge. It was rather steep and quite uneven due to it being a bison path.

Birding group included Carl the executive director of IYB plus four others and our family of five.

Birding group included Carl the executive director of IYB plus four others and our family of five.

Coralee checks out a bird in the scope.

Coralee checks out a bird in the scope.

June was very tired and slept most of the trip on my back.  It was insanely hot and humid, she was pretty much glued there.

June was very tired and slept most of the trip on my back. It was insanely hot and humid, she was pretty much glued there.

Our little prairie baby woke up about two hours into our field trip.  She was enjoying the habitat immensely, so many flowers!

Our little prairie baby woke up about two hours into our field trip. She was enjoying the habitat immensely, so many flowers!

June in the coneflowers.

June in the coneflowers.

We drove to Sioux City, Iowa (on the far western edge of the state) Friday evening after Brian got off work and didn’t get into town until after 11pm. Long day! We stayed downtown at Stoney Creek Inn, an extremely well-kept and accommodating hotel. We will definitely select the hotel on a return trip.

The next morning our Iowa Young Birders (IYB) field trip began at 9AM out at the 3000-acre Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve (north of Sioux City in Plymouth County), owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in Iowa. Broken Kettle is a sweeping reminder of nature’s beauty. Not only is it the Conservancy’s largest preserve in Iowa, but it contains the largest remaining prairie in Iowa. In 1999, the Conservancy found the prairie rattlesnake, an extremely rare species, at this site, making Broken Kettle even more important to the region. The Nature Conservancy welcomed a herd of 28 bison at Broken Kettle Grasslands preserve in the fall of 2008 — an historic event benefiting the native prairie and the bison herd itself. –The Nature Conservancy

This was our first IYB field trip. Coralee and Merritt were literally in birding heaven. The executive director of IYB Carl Bendorf led the trip, along with Lee Schoenewe and his wife. We found out later in the day that Lee is the Chair of TNC in Iowa’s Board of Trustees and one of the greatest living birders in North America at this time–um, that was quite humbling to realize as he was literally the salt of the earth, both he and his wife. Carl and Lee led our little group all around the main entrance to Broken Kettle, up into the Loess Hills, pointing out every bird they saw or heard. They were incredibly patient helping the children (and adults!) locate the birds on the scope and understand the identifying marks for each species. They answered absolutely every single question Merritt asked (and he talks A LOT!). Lee shared his extensive knowledge of the Loess Hills and birding in Iowa as we hiked. I was truly astounded at the level of knowledge both Carl and Lee imparted to us that morning. We saw (or heard) a couple dozen species, most were new sightings for our family.

Around 11:30 we headed off the hills and back down to the TNC Bison Day staging area and settled under a tent to fill out our birding checklists for the day. It was a stunning day, both aesthetically and in terms of climate–temperatures in the mid-90s and very humid. Sun sun sun out on the prairie.

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Species Positively Identified:
*New species to our family

*Orchard Oriole
*Yellow Warbler
Turkey Vulture
Baltimore Oriole
Barn Swallow
*Bell’s Vireo
*Western Meadowlark–Iowa is the far eastern portion of its range
*Eastern Kingbird
Kildeer
*Dickcissel
Eastern Bluebird
*Grasshopper Sparrow
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch
Red-winged Blackbird
Indigo Bunting
American Robin
Field Sparrow
Great Blue Heron–three flying over the hills in a group, never seen more than one flying together before
Blue Grosbeak
*Eastern Towhee
*Lark Sparrow
Wild Turkey
Mourning Dove

We parted ways with Carl and Lee and the rest of the birding group around noon. There were many Bison Day activities taking place at the staging area all day, including showings of a Bald Eagle poisoned and now recovered from lead, aquatic tours of a nearby wetland, a prairie flower hike up into a restricted area due to rattlesnakes (we skipped that one!), kids face-painting & coloring, and the main event–tours of the bison herd. Our bison tour left on little yellow school buses at 1:15, providing us plenty of time to eat our sack lunches, enjoy the activities, drink lots of water, and sit in front of the big cattle fans in the barns while we waited. It was blisteringly hot, even in the open-door lean-to barns. The school buses were air-conditioned, so that was a nice 10-minute reprieve. We got off the buses and boarded a hayrack for the slow, hot tour of one of two bison herds out in the hills. The farmer pulling the hayrack stopped the tractor twice for us to observe the herd and listen to the biologists talk about the herd and its management. June was pretty much done at this point in the day and wanted off the hayrack but there was nowhere to go our there in the hills. Containing her got a bit dicey.

One of two reintroduced bison herds.  This herd totaled around 80 with 15 bulls.  Calving began in May.

One of two reintroduced bison herds. This herd totaled around 80 with 15 bulls. Calving began in May.

Merritt’s highlight of the day came just before we left the bison herd. He spotted a bison horn stuck in the dry mud path behind the hayrack and asked the biologist if that was indeed a horn as he pointed it out from up on the hayrack. The biologist said he didn’t think so, but would go check it out….sure enough, it was a bison horn! Both the biologist and the rest of the TNC crew were amazed. Apparently bison don’t shed their horns like deer shed their antlers (that is probably obvious to most people, I guess I didn’t realize this fact). A new horn will grow back if they lose one in a fight (which is more than likely how it fell off), but the bull will look a bit lopsided. The biologist passed the horn around the hayrack and then told Merritt he had to ask the herd manager if he could keep the horn once we got back…but as long as Scott (the manager) said yes, it was his to take home. To say he was an elated child is putting it mildly!!! There is a very dirty bison horn in my laundry room as I type this…yes, he got to keep it. Now to figure out what to do with it, it is very dirty and heavy! I didn’t realize it would be so heavy. Merritt said it is the best souvenir he’s ever found and he wants to put it in a plastic display case so robbers won’t break in to steal this prized item…that is such a Merritt thing to say!

We went back to the hotel around 4pm. Brian and the older kids swam for a couple of hours in the pool. Bison Day is an annual event for The Nature Conservancy. Highly recommend if you’re in the area next July!

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4 thoughts on “Loess Hills Day 1: Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve

  1. Sweet, Ruby! If I’m being completely honest, the most exhilarating part of the day for me would’ve been sitting in front of those massive cattle fans! You know how much I love my fans!
    JK!!! The whole day sounds like an absolute blast. So glad y’all had fun!

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    • You need to meet Lee. I think this fall I will try to set up a migratory birding outing with him and his wife for you and me. He’s about 60 maybe a hair younger. Still works in banking full-time. His wife is a retired community college English professor. The entire birding trip I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed it. You and Grandma Darling.

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