Iowa: With it’s bold rivers and large plains of grasses and farmlands, it is a bucolic place to live in and experience the Midwest charm. It is also a wonderful place to find many of North America’s raptor species. Situated between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, these two iconic rivers channel the many confluences of streams through the gentle roll of the plains. Thus feeding a rich soil that supports the kind of dynamic species variation that is able to support the myriad of raptors.
In the winter, frozen rivers restrict a few open spots where hot spots of fish activity occur. The eagles arrive from the north and spend a season of securing a bountiful supply of fish. Although the eagles are edgy when humans are close in proximity; if you don’t try to get too close then one can experience the majestic bald eagle hunt right before them. As bald eagles increase in population the eastern side of Iowa has become known as one of the best places in the lower 48 to witness them. On a good day you might be able to count several hundred of these birds. Upon long journeys eagles have been known to soar as high as 26,000′ with a speed up to 30 m.p.h and on a dive with the acceleration up to 100 m.p.h.
The real beauty is when they are actively hunting fish and practicing the art of being a true hunter. Watching them for hours it is easy to understand why they are the nation’s symbol. They stand for all of what we admire in a species that has immense flight power and the ability to withstand extremes and survive with the tools of what they have. They are a communicative bird and often squawk at other eagles. Mating pairs last for a lifetime. They are great parents and are protective of their young. Eyesight is a speciality as the eagle can spot something as small as a mouse from 1/4 mile away. Then with a stroke from their talons they can grab a subject with over 2000 lbs/square inch of pressure. While that is comparable to what a humans jaw bite is, it is done with razor talons to eviscerate it’s prey and able to crush bone. Any eagle is an opportunist and crafty at that so they will scavenge what they can but their skill as a hunter is unmatched by any avian hunter.
On the smaller scale of avian raptors is the Saw-Whet owl which happens to be the smallest owl species found in North America. I can describe each encounter with a saw-whet as a precious moment. Considered to be somewhat ‘common’ these owls are no common bird to find. Roosting in chosen conifers such as junipers and cedar trees, camouflage to perfection, they sleep all day and occasionally stretch and preen. This owl is strictly nocturnal and hunts prey from the dimunitive insects to small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews, squirrels, bats, and small birds. They may look like a darling but their talons can snatch prey as large as 4x their weight.
Iowa has all of this and more. From the smallest raptor ( saw-whet) to the largest (eagle). The riparian vegetation, grasslands and agriculture create an environment that has a plethora of rodents, small mammals and fish that attracts these avian predators to this State. All told Iowa is blessed with a diversity not found in the same abundance elsewhere. It is a field of dreams.