Sunday, April 28 was a beautiful day- a great day for a float down the river. My friends and I launched our canoes at Adkins Bridge, west of Rippey and ended our trip at Dawson.
Many cars were parked at both boat ramps- other people were also enjoying some recreational time on the river.
During the trip down the river I observed many species of birds that depend on the river for their sustenance. Kingfishers and blue herons were feeding on fish, frogs, and other aquatic life. Canada geese honked at us as our canoes went by their nesting areas. It seemed as if every log jam had a feeding flock of wood ducks or blue winged-teal that burst out of the mangled tree limbs when we passed by.
The most interesting sightings were three species of waterfowl that are not commonly found in central Iowa; we saw seven Double-crested Cormorants, a pair of American Avocets, and a Greater Yellowlegs. These birds will spend the summer further north- they were just passing through and stopped on the Raccoon River for a rest and some food.
The Cormorants would dive and swim underwater for twenty-five feet downstream as they looked for small fish. The Yellowlegs and Avocets walked in the shallows along the edge of the sandbar probing their long beaks in the sand and mud feeling for worms and insects.
These migrating birds depend on the river as a respite stop for food and shelter as they fly to their northern breeding grounds. The Raccoon River and other Iowa rivers such as the Des Moines and the Skunk River serve as a corridor for migrating birds and as a greenbelt for other wildlife.
But these important habitats for wildlife and migrating birds are in trouble. One major threat is water pollution, according to Iowa’s DNR 628 streams are “impaired waters”. This means that the river isn’t suitable for activities such as swimming or fishing and the waters are probably harmful to wildlife too.
Another major threat is habitat fragmentation and the loss of wildlife corridors. These essential areas of habitat are being destroyed by increasing human population, urban expansion, and agricultural interests.
Wildlife corridors can be a river valley, a small creek lined with trees, or even a weedy fence row that connects areas of habitat while providing food and shelter for birds and mammals. Sadly today’s farm economy is not considering the needs of wildlife. I saw a ten acre woodlot at the river’s edge is being bulldozed; trees are being cut down in fence rows and land that was in idle in the Conservation Reserve Program (C.R.P.) is going to be planted in row crops. Since 2008 land that was in C.R.P. has been reduced by half and put in row crops and most of those acres have been highly erodible. While on the canoe excursion I saw one field that was tilled to the river’s edge with no buffer strips in sight. These vital wildlife areas are being destroyed so a few more rows of corn can be planted.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture has formed “The Iowa Plan” a voluntary program to reduce farm-field runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into Iowa’s streams and help reduce the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. If the plan works, it would help clean up the rivers and some of the measures in the plan will help develop wildlife habitat and corridors. I hope that Iowa farmers follow the plan so my grandchildren will also be able to see rare migrating birds on the Raccoon River.