My 12 Best Bird Watching Spots in Iowa You Should Try

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Iowa has about 390 bird species that have been recorded in the state. Most people think of corn fields when they think of Iowa, but many more habitats are present, making for good foraging, resting, and breeding sites for birds. The difficulty is knowing which are the best spots, which is why I compiled this list.

The best bird watching spots in Iowa include open water areas, such as Saylorville Reservoir and Riverton. Places with a range of habitats, such as Desoto Natural Wildlife Area, are also suitable for birds, and you should not miss out on the hawks at the Hitchcock Nature Area.

A table giving the most exciting birds you can see at each of my top 12 birding spots in Iowa:

Lacey-Keosauqua State ParkKentucky Warbler and Indigo Bunting
Waubonsie State ParkBarred Owl and Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Riverton Wildlife Management AreaTrumpeter Swan and Sandhill Crane
Saylorville ReservoirMottled Duck and Surf Scoter
Red Rock ReservoirPeregrine Falcon and Greater Scaup
Dewey’s Pasture Bird Conservation AreaWestern Grebe and Sandhill Crane
Hitchcock Nature AreaGolden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon
Yellow River State ForestWhite-winged Crossbill and American Black Duck
Desoto Natural Wildlife RefugeSnow Goose and Double-crested Cormorant
Neal Smith National Wildlife RefugeVesper Sparrow and Lapland Longspur
Pikes Peak State ParkBroad-winged Hawk and American Redstart
Carney Marsh Nature PreserveLesser Yellowlegs and Philadelphia Vireo
Best Places to Bird Watch in Iowa

Read on to learn what places are best for bird watching in Iowa and which species you can expect to see in each spot.

Best Bird Watching Spots in Iowa
Best Bird Watching Spots in Iowa

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in Iowa

Iowa has agricultural fields, grasslands, woodlands, wetlands, savannahs, and different types of forests. The habitat diversity means that there are a lot of spots for bird watchers to choose from.

1. Lacey-Keosauqua State Park

This park is 1,635 acres in size. It is an important bird conservation area and includes the Des Moines River.

The vegetation lining the river, woods, and bluffs provide many places for birdlife. There are also lots of hiking trails that bird watchers can take while bird watching.

This state park is good for finding spring migrants such as warblers, tanagers, orioles, and buntings. Specific bird species to look for during spring migration in this park include Summer Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole. 

You can find vireos like the Warbling Vireo and Yellow-throated Vireo in the bushes and trees. Other species in the park include the Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Parula, and Kentucky Warbler. 

The Kentucky Warbler is often in dense bush near water, so checking near the river in the thickets is advisable during spring migration. Northern Parulas are also near water, so you can look for that species simultaneously.

2. Waubonsie State Park 

Waubonsie State Park is situated in the southwestern part of the state. These hardwood forests are known to be rich in bird species, making them particularly attractive for bird watchers.

Some birds you can find in the park include Barred Owls, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Louisiana Waterthrushes. 

In this park, you can also find Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, and Wild Turkeys. Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds have also been recorded in the area.

There is a checklist of the birds found in this park, which can be used on your trip here, and if you are lucky, you may even add to the list of birds. 

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

3. Riverton Wildlife Management Area

This area is close to Waubonsie State Park and is the place to see waterfowl. The area has a lot of wetlands and marshes scattered around in the prairie.

At least 176 species are found here, according to the checklist for the area. Sandhill Cranes and Trumpeter Swans have bred in the area before.

Many geese occur here, including Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Cackling Geese, and Canada Geese. The ducks and other waterfowl include Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and American Wigeon.

Several shorebird species have been observed in the refuge, including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, and Pectoral Sandpipers.

The refuge also provides habitat for the near-threatened Loggerhead Shrike and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

4. Saylorville Reservoir

The reservoir and surrounding area have a list of 300 bird species recorded, making this a very productive site for a bird watcher.

You can find waterfowl and gulls on the lake. Both Bonaparte’s Gulls and Franklin’s Gulls occur at Saylorville Reservoir. Several species of dabbling and diving ducks are found in the open water of the reservoir.

Check the open water for the following species of waterfowl: Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Mottled Duck, American Black Duck, Common Goldeneye, Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, and many more waterfowl species. 

American White Pelicans are found here in summer. You can find Bald Eagles and Ospreys most of the year in the area; while you can see them feeding on the water, they may also be seen perched in tall trees near the impoundment. 

It is advisable to scan the banks of the lake, and bird watch in surrounding areas for other bird species. You may see kingfishers and cormorants near or on the water and various passerine species and woodpeckers in vegetation near and some distance from the water. 

The southern side of the dam is recommended if you are looking for shorebirds, but this also depends on the water level.

With a lower water level, there are more mudflats and, thus, more shorebirds to be found since they feed by probing in the mud. 

In the surrounding vegetation, you should keep an eye out for Philadelphia Vireos and Bell’s Vireos. Check grassy patches for Bobolinks and Meadowlarks. Both species of meadowlark have been recorded in the area.

TOP TIP: Read this complete guide to discover the best time for bird watching in your state. Even though birds don’t have lips, they can whistle! Find out how here.

5. Red Rock Reservoir

This reservoir is found 30 miles south and east of Des Moines. There are overlooks on different dam parts, and many shorebirds, such as Least Terns and Piping Plovers, can occur here when the water level drops.

Hardwood trees on the lake’s western side are a good bet for passerine species such as the Kentucky Warbler and Scarlet Tanager. You can find Peregrine Falcons in the area in the Fall.

Bird species you can find at Red Rock Reservoir include the American White Pelican, Greater Scaup, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and Snowy Egret.  

6. Dewey’s Pasture Bird Conservation Area

This conservation area is located on the northwestern side of the state. It is one of the prairie pothole areas of Iowa, where many ponds and marshlands attract birds.

There are breeding Western Grebes in the area and elusive marsh birds like the Sora, Least Bittern, and American Bittern. 

Swamp Sparrows and Marsh Wrens also occur in the moist marshy places in the refuge. Other bird species to look out for include the Bald Eagle, Trumpeter Swan, Sandhill Crane, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. 

7. Hitchcock Nature Area

The Hitchcock Nature Area is 1,268 acres in size and is found in the Loess Hills region of Iowa. This is an excellent area to see raptors, and the best time to see and count hawks is between September and December. There is an observation tower that people use to count raptors.

Raptors observed flying overhead include Golden Eagles, Broad-winged Hawks, Bald Eagles, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Peregrine Falcons.

The area also has many woodlands, attracting other birds, such as woodpeckers and warblers. 

8. Yellow River State Forest

Yellow River State Forest is in the northeastern region of Iowa. It consists of woodlands and streams. The primary vegetation is hickory-oak forests and maple-basswood forests. There is also prairie present consisting of a range of grasses, including little and big bluestem.

The area attracts many bird species, including Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, House Finch, Clay-colored Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrow. Check the rivers for Belted Kingfishers, American Black Ducks, and Wood Ducks.

TIP: Check out my recommended products if you are looking for the best and trusted equipment for birdwatching in the wild or on your backyard (Amazon link):

9. Desoto Natural Wildlife Refuge

This is an 8,300-acre area that includes Desoto Lake. The lake is an oxbow of the Missouri River and serves as a suitable habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. 

Riparian forests, woodlands, grasslands, and sandbars provide places for birds to rest and feed. The birds found here include Snow Geese, Double-crested Cormorants, American White Pelicans, and overwintering Bald Eagles.

10. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge has a range of habitats, including meadows, oak-savanna, and tallgrass prairie. The types of birds you can find here include the following species: Upland Sandpiper, Willow Flycatcher, Dickcissel, Bobolink, and Eastern and Western Meadowlark. 

You can find at least three species of sparrow in the refuge: Henslow’s Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, and Grasshopper Sparrow. Rough-legged Hawks, Smith’s Longspur, and Lapland Longspur occur in the refuge in winter. 

11. Pikes Peak State Park

Pikes Peak is a terrific place for bird watchers. You can hike 11 miles of trails and overlooks where you can view the Mississippi River and associated birds. There are also campsites so you can stay overnight and search for night birds like Barred Owls, which occur in woodland areas.

The park also has birds like Bald Eagles along the Mississippi River and various warblers and vireos in the wooded areas. Pikes Peak State Park is an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area.

You can see the stunning American Redstart in the bushes here. Broad-winged Hawks are also often seen in the park.

12. Carney Marsh Nature Preserve

This small 40-acre preserve is an excellent spot for bird watching. In the marshy areas, you can see birds such as the Yellow-headed Blackbird and Red-winged Blackbird. There is a printable checklist of all the birds recorded here.

Passerines like Eastern Phoebes, Willow Flycatchers, Bell’s Vireos, Philadelphia Vireos, and Blue-headed Vireos can be seen in this reserve.

Waterfowl species to keep an eye out for include Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, and Northern Shoveler. Several shorebird species also occur in the preserve. Species such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpipers can be seen in muddy, low-water areas.

Best Time to Bird Watch in Iowa

Bird watching is always worthwhile in Iowa because there are many species of birds and more diverse habitats than people realize.

Planning trips around times of migration for specific species is also a smart move to see birds you may not always easily see at other times of the year.

RaptorsEnd of September
Warblers and other songbird migrantsEarly May
Best Time to Bird Watch in Iowa

The Iowa State Bird

American Goldfinch - The State Bird of Iowa
American Goldfinch – The State Bird of Iowa

The state bird of Iowa is the American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis. The bird is small with a yellow body color, black and white wings, and a short but forked tail. 

The bright yellow coloring and the black patch on the front of the head recognize the males. Females lack the black patch on the head and are a duller yellow. Females are also a duller color on the back and head and more of an olive color than yellow.

The American Goldfinch is a common bird often found in gardens feeding on grass seeds. They also are usually in flocks and will visit thistle seed feeders.

Bird Watching Laws in Iowa

Both federal and state laws are in place to protect birds. Iowa adheres to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which states that a person is not to possess, harm, or interfere with an indigenous migratory wild bird or their eggs or nests. State law protects all birds, excluding Pigeons, House Sparrows, and European Starlings. 

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


Iowa is a state with a surprising diversity of habitats. There are also plenty of wetlands to visit to see the many ducks and other waterfowl in the state. The range of habitats and areas that are good for counting hawks in migration make Iowa a must-visit state for a bird watcher.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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