Top Places To Birdwatch in Iowa – Free & Paid Birding Destinations

December 5, 2021 // 20 minute read

Birding Locations » US » Iowa Bird Watching Resources

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As you are undoubtedly aware, there’s a lot more to Iowa than soybeans and corn, or cattle and hogs. This beautiful place is filled with many man-made and natural wetlands, lakes, prairies, and forests. Do you know what else makes Iowa special? These gorgeous landscapes are filled with many spectacular birds.

At last count, the state of Iowa is just shy of documenting 390 recorded bird species. These species encompass northern birds, Midwestern birds, and south-central birds and consist of many waterbirds, gulls, and waterfowl along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Today, I’d like to share an insider’s view of many of the top birding destinations in the Hawkeye State. By the time you’re through reading this valuable information, you’ll know the best places to go bird watching, the top birdwatching clubs in various communities, social media websites, contact information, and much more.

And, if you are going to any of Iowa’s neighboring states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota), be sure to check out our resources pages for those states as well!

Bird Watching Destinations In Iowa: Free Destinations

You may not realize this, but there are so many incredible free bird-watching destinations to visit in the state of Iowa. The Hawkeye State is filled with attractive areas that birds love to congregate in, migrate toward, and so much more.

Are you ready to learn the best free hotspots? You’ll have a chance to see as many as 390 recognized bird species on your next excursion. Keep reading to find out more about my favorite recommendations.

Lacey Keosauqua State Park – Free Park Entrance, Paid Camping

Visiting this beautiful state park provides an amazing opportunity to walk along 1653 acres of land and participate in hiking, fishing, swimming, birdwatching, and camping. It’s been in existence since 1920, and it is only the second state park ever to exist in the amazing state of Iowa. Bring along your friends and family and enjoy 13 miles of hiking trails, boating, and you can even rent one of six family cabins on the campgrounds.

Location:

22895 Lacey trail
Keosauqua, IA 52565

Phone: 319-293-3502

Fax: 319-293-3329

Email: [email protected]

GPS: 40.7123° N, 91.9813° W

Hours Of Operation:

The main park opens every day at 4 AM and closes every night at 10:30 PM. And if you are camping, you obviously have the necessary permission to stay in the park overnight. Otherwise, you must leave by closing time.

Hiking Trails:

Birdwatchers who also truly enjoy hiking and spending time in nature viewing the amazing wildlife, the gorgeous birds, and the incredible scenery are in for an absolute treat. Why? In the Lacey Keosauqua State Park region, you’ll have the opportunity to hike along 4 absolutely brilliant hiking trails with paved paths, wooden bridges, rock ledges, and so much more.

Do you want to learn more about these stunning trails? Keep reading to discover the names and other pertinent information that I’ll share with you now including:

  • Lacey Keosauqua River Trail – I personally really enjoy this particular hiking trail because it takes you close to the river, across a beautiful wooden bridge, and it’s so clean and clear that it’s very simple to navigate and walk along the path. You aren’t going to run into any major obstacles in your way, the ground is flat, and even the most inexperienced hikers will have no trouble on this path. It’s a bit long for some people since it’s 4.4 miles in total distance. But if you’re willing to give it a shot, you can complete the trail in an hour and 45 minutes if you put your heart into it.
  • Lacey Keosauqua Lake Trail – there’s a similarity to this trail compared to the previous one because you’re also going to walk along an attractive wooden bridge and you will also have water across your path, but in this case it is going to be a lake instead of a river. It’s a nice trail to walk along because the grounds are well-maintained and everything is relatively flat and simple. This is a shorter trail than the previous one as well, because the total length is 2.1 miles. The average person can finish it in about 55 minutes.
  • Zen Pool – although there isn’t a lot of walking in this area, this is one of my all-time favorite places to visit whenever I go to Lacey Keosauqua State Park. What makes it so special? The Zen Pool is so beautiful looking that you can’t help but feel absolutely cool, calm, and serene whenever you visit this beautiful location. As far as walking goes, you’re only going to hike 0.3 miles, which isn’t very far at all. In fact, the average person can complete the trail in 5 to 10 minutes flat.
  • Gate House Trail Loop – this last trail is also another wonderful opportunity because it takes you directly in a loop to the Gate House and back again. Why is this special? Well, you’ll walk along a unique wooden bridge to get there during part of the trip. But once you enter the gatehouse, you’ll read historical facts about the area, information about birds and other wildlife, and so much more. The total looping trail is 2 miles long, which the average hiker can complete in about an hour.

Waubonsie State Park – Free Bird Watching

If you ever intend to spend time on the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, you should seriously consider making Waubonsie State Park your first stop. This location is a hotbed for birding activity and it’s one of the best of its kind in Southwest Iowa. It’s also known for its unique hills, wonderful vistas, and the gorgeous Nebraska planes as well. Plus, there is a system of trails that are perfect for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking as well.

Location:

2585 Waubonsie Park Rd.
Hamburg, IA 51640

Phone: 712-382-2786

Email: [email protected]

Blackburn State Park Unit
1291 Cemetery Rd.
Thurman, IA 51640

Phone: 712-382-2786

GPS: 40.6749° N, 95.6897° W

Hours Of Operation:

If you plan to visit during the day for hiking, biking, horseback riding, or birdwatching, you are allowed to enter the park seven days a week from 4 AM to 10:30 PM. Holiday hours could potentially differ, so call to find out if you intend to show up on Labor Day or any other national holiday.

  • Summer Tanager
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Barred Owl
  • Wild Turkey
  • Wood Thrush
  • Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
  • Eastern Whippoorwill
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
  • Louisiana Water Thrush
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Ovenbird

Hiking Trails:

This is another area that has a few excellent hiking trails for you to travel upon. Although it isn’t rife with trails, there are two specific ones that I would like to tell you about today. One is easy and the other is moderately difficult, so you’ll have your pick figuring out which one is the best to choose to meet your personal wants and needs.

The names of the two hiking trails are as follows:

  • Waubonsie Horse Trail – remember earlier when I mentioned that you can go horseback riding along these trails? Well, this is exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned it previously. This particular trail is very easy to travel on and it has a very clear and well-defined dirt path for you to hike, horseback ride, or even ride a motorbike along the path. The total length of the trail is 5.1 miles, which should take the average person about 2 ½ hours to complete on foot. I really couldn’t tell you how long it would take on horseback or dirt bike, so you’ll have to figure that out on your own.
  • Mincer Trail and Sunset Ridge Trail Loop – this loop trail is shorter than the horse trail that I mentioned above, but it’s definitely more difficult as well. I’ve rated this trail as moderately difficult because there’s uneven terrain, the path is not as well maintained as the other one, the grass grows long and certain parts, and it’s a lot harder to see where you’re going at times, although it isn’t completely difficult. The total length of the trail is 2 miles from beginning to end, which should only take you about an hour to finish.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge – Free Entrance, Paid Parking

You’ll find all 8300 acres of DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge along DeSoto Lake, which is a beautiful place to go if you want to see many wild and amazing birds. A big chunk of it is in Nebraska, but it’s also partly located in Iowa. So, for anyone in the state of Iowa who plans to go bird watching, you could visit this section of the wildlife refuge and see many amazing birds in this beautiful habitat.

Location:

1434 316th Ln.
Missouri Valley, IA 51555

Phone: 712-388-4800

GPS: 41.5410° N, 96.0308° W

Hours Of Operation:

The Desoto National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public every day from 5 AM to 9:30 PM, even on holidays. The visitor center, on the other hand, is open from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM on Monday through Saturday. The visitor center is closed on all federal holidays including Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and more.

  • Baltimore Oriole
  • American White Pelican
  • Double-Crested Cormorant
  • Snow Goose
  • Bald Eagle
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Wild Turkey
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Red-Headed Woodpecker
  • Dickcissel
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Wood Duck

Hiking Trails:

Although there are definitely plenty of places to hike while bird watching during your visit to Desoto National Wildlife Refuge, most of these trails do not have a name. But there is one trail in particular that I get to tell you about today, so if you’re interested stick around to learn more information.

The name of the trail and other valuable info include:

  • Desoto National Wildlife Refuge Trail – I love a few things about this particular trail that make it so interesting. First, it takes you right along DeSoto Lake, so you get to travel along the water for a large portion of the trail. Also, the trail is so flat that even the slowest, least likely hiker can complete this trail without any difficulty. It isn’t the longest trail in the world since it’s only 1.6 miles from beginning to end. And because it’s relatively short, you can finish it in less than an hour with time to spare. In fact, the average person completes the trail in roughly 40 minutes max.

Yellow River State Forest – Free Bird Watching, Paid Camping

This stunning state forest is one of the best places to visit to go bird watching in northeastern Iowa. It’s a protected area filled with hardwood forest, striking bluffs, and beautiful patches of land along the Mississippi River. The national Audubon Society considers it an Important Bird Area, which makes it a wonderful habitat for the finest birds in the area.

Location:

729 State Forest Rd.
Harpers Ferry, IA 52146

Phone: 563-586-2254

GPS: 43.1744° N, 91.2408° W

Hours Of Operation:

Since this is a state forest in Iowa, the area is open to the public 24 hours a day and it remains open every day of the year, even on federal and national holidays. You can visit 24/7/365.

  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Acadian Flycatcher
  • Barred Owl
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Ruffed Grouse
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • American Redstart
  • Bald Eagle
  • Wood Thrush
  • Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
  • Cerulean Warbler
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk

Hiking Trails:

For anyone interested, it’s my pleasure to tell you that there are 6 excellent hiking trails for you to travel upon while you visit Yellow River State Forest. These trails are mostly moderately difficult, with the exception of one somewhat long easier trail. I’ll fill you in on the important details below.

The names and other pertinent info are as follows:

  • Paint Creek Unit Loop – this moderately difficult hiking trail is also fairly long as well. Parts of the forest that you’ll walk through are overgrown and the path isn’t always very clear. But there are a lot of great birds in the area, so it’s definitely worth it to attempt to walk the entire loop, although it will take you the better part of a day to accomplish the task. The trail is 13.5 miles long, which should take about 6 ½ hours to finish from beginning to end.
  • Firetower via Saddle Trail – this trail also presents moderate difficulty, although it’s a lot shorter since it’s only 5.7 miles long. As you walk along the trail, you’ll come across an old metal bridge that you need to travel upon, some unruly and rocky ground as you walk through the forest paths, and you’ll also have relatively clear patches of grassy land as well, so the whole thing isn’t totally brutal. In all, it should take two hours and 20 minutes to complete the trail.
  • Heffern’s Hill Loop – this trail is moderately difficult as well but it certainly easier than the previous ones mentioned. The total length of the trail is 2.2 miles, which isn’t very difficult and it should only take around 55 minutes to complete. You’ll walk through forested land without a clear path at times and the ground will occasionally be rocky as well. But ultimately this trail is definitely worth the hike.
  • White Pine and Forester Loop Trail – although it’s considered moderately difficult because the grass is grown at certain points and the terrain can get a bit rocky, this trail is also somewhat short since it’s only 2 miles long from one end of the loop to the other. The average person should easily complete this trail in about an hour.
  • Larkin Valley and Paint Creek Loop Trail – this moderately difficult trail is another big boy because it’s 5.1 miles to get from the start of the loop back to the beginning point. In total, the average person could theoretically finish this trail in 2 ½ hours, which is more than possible if you put your mind and your heart to it.
  • Yellow River Paint Creek Loop Trail – out of everything shared here today, this is the trail that’s considered the easiest because the terrain is clear, the paths are clear, and you will not run into many hills or other obstacles. But it is fairly long since the trail is 6.8 miles, but because the terrain is so easy, I believe you could finish this trail in about three hours.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

For those spending time in western Iowa, you’ll definitely appreciate this amazing 8600-acre refuge. It’s one of the most prized areas in the country because it’s also one of the best endangered habitats located throughout North America. You can get here very quickly since it’s only 20 miles from Des Moines, and many people are working hard to restore this gorgeous prairie.

Location:

Mailing Address
PO Box 399
Prairie City, IA 50228

Physical Address
9981 Pacific St.
Prairie City, IA 50228

Phone: 515-994-3400

GPS: 41.5585° N, 93.2801° W

Hours Of Operation:

Unlike many of the other places I mentioned that are open 24 hours a day, this location has very specific days and hours of operation. They are as follows:

  • Monday – closed
  • Tuesday – 10 AM to 2 PM
  • Wednesday – closed
  • Thursday – 10 AM to 2 PM
  • Friday – closed
  • Saturday – 10 AM to 2 PM
  • Sunday – closed
  • Lapland Longspur
  • Bobolink
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Wild Turkey
  • Western Meadowlark
  • Upland Sandpiper
  • Short-Eared Owl
  • Northern Shrike
  • Sedge Wren
  • Vesper Sparrow

Hiking Trails:

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to visit if you like hiking and bird watching and combining the two pastimes. There are four trails that vary in their degree of difficulty and length. I will tell you all about them right now.

The names of these hiking trails and other important information include:

  • Neal Smith Scenic Bike Trail – this trail is moderately difficult, which is what I wanted to tell you right away because it’s overgrown in places and the ground is uneven and it can even get hilly at times. Although they call it a bike trail, you are certainly more than capable of walking the entire 9.1 miles if you feel so inclined. The average person should have no trouble completing this trail in about 4 ½ hours.
  • Neal Smith Bison Area Scenic Drive – in this particular case, you probably trust the name of the trail and only drive instead of taking it by bicycle or on foot. Remember, you’re going to see bison along this trail, and these animals are unpredictable, wild, and they could potentially turn on you if you aren’t careful. The total length of the trail is 5.2 miles, which if you’re crazy enough to walk should take about 2 ½ hours to complete. You’ll finish it much faster if you drive.
  • Savanna Trail – this is the easiest trail out of the bunch and it’s short, simple to walk upon, and very straightforward. The total trail length is 0.6 miles, which you can probably complete around 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Tallgrass Loop Trail – this trail is also easy because you’re going to walk along an actual paved path throughout the entire looping trail, which makes it simple to navigate and even easier to walk along the clear path. The total length of the trail is 2.2 miles, which you can likely finish and 55 minutes from beginning to end.

Bird Watching Destinations In Iowa: Paid Destinations

Ventures Birding Tours

The exciting thing about Ventures Birding Tours is they are a well known company that takes birdwatching trips all over the world including North America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Australasia. Today, we’re here because they also host an exciting birdwatching trip in Iowa, where they explore the Hawkeye state with other like-minded birders.

At the time of this writing, they do not have an Iowa birdwatching trip scheduled. The last trip took place on October 21 through the 28th in 2020. That trip was hosted by leader Simon Thompson and it cost $1885 per person to attend the weeklong trip. For this fee, it took care of all sleeping accommodations, all meals, all entry fees to various parks and locations, trip packets, and the team leader’s services.

Contact Info:

Ventures Birding Tours 
PO Box 1095
Skyland, NC 28776

Phone: 828-333-7288

Email: [email protected]

Please visit this link to learn more about their upcoming worldwide tours. Or if you prefer, visit this link to gather more information about their upcoming local day trips.

Iowa Birdwatching Clubs

One of the most amazing reasons to appreciate birdwatching in Iowa is that you get the opportunity to do it with other like-minded individuals. Yes, it’s true. There are some exciting bird watching clubs in this wonderful state, which make it very easy to get together with friends and birding colleagues to enjoy the nearly 400 different bird species in the state of Iowa.

Not only are there different chapters of the National Audubon Society, but you also have the opportunity to join the Iowa City Bird Club. I’ll tell you much more about both of these incredible organizations in much greater detail below.

Iowa Audubon Society

Becoming a member of the Iowa Audubon Society is a good idea if you’re looking to join a birding community and family. This wonderful and exciting organization has many years of history, and it’s focused on improving bird habitats all throughout the great state of Iowa.

Some of the many chapters of the Iowa Audubon Society include:

Depending on how much you travel throughout the state, you can join the Iowa Audubon Society is one of the local chapters in your community if you prefer. I’ll share more information about how to join down below.

Contact Info:

Mailing Address
PO Box 682
Waterloo, IA 50704

Past and Future Events:

Unfortunately, they do not share specific information on the main Iowa Audubon Society page regarding previous or current events. You’ll need to visit the pages of each individual chapter to find out about upcoming events, bird walks, field trips, and more.

Membership Fees:

It’s pretty easy to become a member of the Iowa Audubon Society. To join, please visit this page and follow the on-screen instructions.

Membership levels are as follows:

  • Individual Membership – $15
  • Family Membership – $20
  • Organization Membership – $100
  • Corporation Membership – $500

Iowa City Bird Club

If you’re from eastern Iowa or live anywhere else in this wonderful state, you might want to become a member of the Iowa City Bird Club. This passionate organization is enthusiastic about all things related to birding. They provide wonderful educational opportunities, beginning birders classes, opportunities to volunteer your time in the community, field trips, special events, and so much more.

Contact Info:

To get in touch with this organization, you can contact them in a couple of ways including:

Past and Future Events:

  • Pelican Festival – the upcoming Pelican Festival is going to be held on September 12 from 11 AM to 4 PM. It’s being held at Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area in Swisher. It provides an up close and personal look at the American White Pelican. There will be exhibits, face painting, food, and a whole lot of fun. To volunteer for this festival, please call it Karen Disbrow at 319-430-0315 and let her know how you can help.
  • Kent Park Bird Walk – this exciting upcoming bird walk is taking place on September 15 from 8 AM to 10 PM. Rick Hollis is hosting the event. All participants must meet at Kent Park in the Conservation Education Center parking lot. At this event, you’ll be able to view migrant and breeding birds for two hours with other like-minded birders. Sign up to participate in the event at this link here.
  • Hawk Watch Stainbrook Preserve – This Upcoming Birding Extravaganza Is Being Held on September 26 from 9 AM to 1 PM at Stainbrook Preserve. Participants are supposed to meet at 1801 Mehaffey Bridge Rd NE at 9 AM sharp. On this journey, you’ll see red-tailed, sharp-shinned, broad-winged, and more hawks along with other migrating raptors.

Membership Fees:

It’s very easy to join the Iowa City Bird Club. Please visit their membership page here and follow the on-screen instructions. If you prefer to avoid paying via PayPal, you can mail a check to the following location:

Make check payable to Eastern Iowa Birdwatch
Larry Mahoney
2223 Cae Dr.
Iowa City, IA 52246

The membership levels include:

  • Household Membership – $15 per year
  • Student Membership – $10 per year

Conclusion For Birding In Iowa

As you can see, there are plenty of resources for birding in Iowa hobbyists and enthusiasts. We encourage you to check out these locations when visiting this great state.

And, if you are an Iowa resident and know of other fantastic birdwatching locations that we’ve overlooked, please feel free to contact us with the details so we can include them in this resource. Our goal is to provide birdwatchers with fantastic birding information in Iowa!

Iowa State Bird - American Goldfinch
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