Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Summer Countdown: Top 10 Things to Do in Your County Parks

The days are muggier and buggier as the smell of fried food on a stick fills the air. This can only mean one thing in Iowa - the beginning of the end of yet another short but sweet midwest summer and the start of pencils, papers and the eruption of cheers from your local high school stadium. But before that glorious taste of freedom comes to seasonal halt, give the kiddos one last hurrah with a local vacation - a county park staycation!

Polk County Conservation is home to more than 14,000 acres spread out across 20 parks, trails and wildlife areas chock full of adventure as summer winds down. Let's take a quick tour of all the fun to be had just waiting around the corner! In no particular order, here is our top 10:

Oxbows at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt

10) Canoe at Chichaqua
The old oxbow river channels of the Skunk River provide ample opportunity to explore the natural world at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. Wildlife species such as river otters, great blue herons, beavers, wood ducks and painted turtles are just a few of the animals that can be seen while canoeing these backwaters. And Chichaqua has canoes for rent right on site! Cost is $8 per hour; paddles and life jackets are provided. Reservations can be made in advance by calling 515-249-5925 or on-site on a first-come, first-serve basis.

9) Fishing
The summer heat may stifle action a bit out on the water but with a little background knowledge, fishing will be just as fun as late spring, early summer! And let's get back to basics. Rig up a simple cane pole and head out to the ponds at Thomas Mitchell, Yellow Banks and Fort Des Moines Parks. Crappie and bluegills on the end of a hook, worm and bobber presentation will provide hours of panfishing fun! Without reels and casting, cane poles eliminate numerous snags and snares inevitable with young kids. You can really keep it simple with a traditional cane pole or purchase a fiberglass collapsible pole - perhaps easier to transport than a 6-14 foot wooden or bamboo pole! Click here for more cane pole information.
Creek walk at Thomas Mitchell Park 

8) Creek Walks
To seriously beat the heat means diving in first! Wading through Camp Creek at Thomas Mitchell park fits the bill on a sweltering August afternoon. Limestone steps installed throughout the waterway improve recreational access to the water for both children and adults alike. Other hotspots to get your feet wet include Mally's Park in Berwick and Paw Creek at Jester Park (accessible via the Hickory Ridge Trail).

7) Natural Playscape and Wildlife Viewing
Constructed from natural materials such as boulders, earth mounds, and water features, this innovative play area encourages imaginative natural play while avoiding plastics, metals, concrete and instruction. Sneaking in a little education is easy with the bison and elk exhibit nearby complete with an accessible observation deck, educational displays, spotting scopes, high quality art components and inviting view.

6) Remember those cane poles?  
Discovery Pond across from the Jester Park cabins is the perfect spot for beginning anglers. A hiking trail also surrounds the pond.

5) Birding
Don't miss the biannual migration of the American white pelican. These magnificent birds are beginning to arrive at Saylorville Lake from the northern U.S. and Canada in preparation for the fall migration. Saylorville serves as one of the largest resting spots stateside for one of the largest birds in North America. Look for the most impressive gatherings towards the end of August. By late September-early October most of the pelicans will have flown south to the Gulf Coast for the winter months.  

American white pelican
There are also two bird blinds for park users to take advantage of; one at Jester Park near Shelter #6 and one at Chichaqua just west of the Longhouse. Bird blinds are great places to observe birds. Inside the blind, you can take a seat and watch birds in their natural setting. Bird feeders are filled regularly to attract birds to the immediate area.

Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt is designated as a Bird Conservation Area by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. The recently constructed wildlife viewing platform is a prime location for viewing many species of birds from meadowlarks to sandhill cranes. This platform area has spotting scopes installed and is easily accessible from Highway 65. Click here to download a brochure about this Bird Conservation Area which includes a field guide checklist.

4) Horseback Riding
Jester Park has even more to offer! Saddle up for adventure with the Jester Park Equestrian Center! Trail, wagon and pony rides are available all month long. Contact JPEC at 515-999-2818 to schedule your ride today! 

3) Golf
Situated within the beautiful Granger countryside, the Jester Park Golf Course is one of the premiere courses in Polk County. Players of all skill levels can try their luck at the 18-Hole Championship Course, 9-Hole Par 3 Course (also perfect for beginners and junior golfers), or Driving Range. The Jester Park Golf Course is accessible from NW 121st Street, just west of the Jester Park entrance. Go online to for more information.

Biking on the Chichaqua Valley Trail
2) Paved Trails
How about a ride or walk along the Chichaqua Valley Trail? With a recent addition of 6.25 miles of trail from the city limits of Bondurant stretching to NE 29th St. where the trail crosses beneath I-80, this Polk County and Bondurant project allows trail users to ride from Des Moines to Baxter via the Chichaqua Valley Trail. Load up the family for an afternoon of fun along this trail!

 1) Soft Trails
Soft, natural trails are also a big ticket for enjoying nature at a slower pace. Take a leisurely stroll amongst the shade and shadows created by a thick canopy of greenery overhead throughout our parks. Beautiful oak and hickory trees in Jester Park and Brown's Woods provide the perfect opportunity to cool down while taking in natural surroundings. The Savanna Trail at Yellow Banks park is home to some very old residents. This trail guides you past some of the last remaining savanna oak trees in Polk County - some are estimated to be more than 250 years old! Additional hiking trails within the park lead to overlooks of the river valley, a Native American burial mound, and a unique backpacking camping area.

Summer fun is right outside your front door right here in Polk County - no (major) travel required!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nature By Chance

Dew-covered prairie
My sister and I had a conversation a few weeks back about Polk County Conservation employees. It went a little something like this...

Sis: So the Naturalists - do they eat bark and pine cones and communicate with animals?

Me: Um, well, not exactly. Most that I know live in typical suburban homes and drive to work every day to educate the public on the natural world.

Sis: (with a shocked look on her face) Really?! Well, what about the ones working in forestry? Are they out chopping down trees, slinging them over their backs and hauling them to their acreage to build a home with their own two hands?

Me: I think you need to come out to our office and job shadow for a day!

This humorous exchange got us thinking...

What can we do to get individuals unaware or uninterested in opportunities in the outdoors...outdoors?! 

We all come from various backgrounds, levels of comfort, and sense of adventure. Some of us certainly are the pine cone chompin', squirrel chatterin', lumberjackin' type! Most of us lie a little more towards the opposite end of this spectrum and at various intervals in between of involvement in the natural world. And what about those who might lie completely at the opposite end? Maybe you have a friend or a family member you wish to encourage to get out there and enjoy all that nature has to offer. How do we go about getting them excited about the outdoors (but maybe leave out the lingering flavor of pine cone)? Or perhaps you are looking to further immerse yourself in natural settings.

Check out your local County Conservation organization!

And here in Polk County, our goal is to get you outside!

What better way to enjoy a summer evening than surrounded by beauty of a county park? How about we throw some tunes in there to make the deal that much sweeter and entice even the most wary to come out and relax amongst the flora and fauna of Iowa? Join us on July 4th for our Music in the Park Concert Series as we welcome Flying Pig Fiddle and Banjo to the stage at the Jester Park Amphitheater. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on as we celebrate Independence Day Southern Appalachian style with old-time string band music on fiddles, banjo, washtub, washboard, pitchfork, fiddlesticks, feet, and more!

And don't miss an evening of food, fun, art and music at Easter Lake Park, Shelter #2 in Des Moines on Friday, July 17th, from 6-8 p.m. Food, beverages and local art will be available to purchase along with free nature programs and art activities. Our featured band, High Society Big Band, plays swinging jazz sounds of the Big Band era, performing compositions that span an entire century of music.

What about those who prefer to remain indoors and enjoy all things wild from the comfort of their homes? 

Insect hotel provides temporary and long-term shelter
Have we got a workshop for you! Contribute to conservation efforts and attract pollinators to your home and garden by building an insect hotel! The Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt Longhouse will be host to a workshop crafting willow homes for these critters on July 11th. Click here for more information and to register.

And for those curious about Iowa ecosystems but maybe unsure of where to begin exploration, don't miss the Discover Our Parks series in July. Come along as we discover life in a stream on a Creek Walk, happen upon creatures in a Marsh Stomp, and take in the grandeur of an Iowa grassland on a Prairie Hike. If viewing local wildlife excites you, come explore Carney Marsh with Polk County Naturalists. We will talk about how this area came to be before setting out on binocular exploration of its inhabitants. We may even dip a net or two into the marsh and see what aquatic critters we might find. Come dressed to go off trail and get a little muddy!

Be sure to check our calendar of events for full details on these outings!

Whether it is from within the comfort of four walls or waist-high in a wetland, fostering a need for the natural world is one of great importance in this ever-changing world in which we live. We look forward to seeing you in our parks!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What is a Watershed? Part II: Eco-Warriors in Action!

How we interact within our watershed affects all communities, both living and nonliving.
Last month we introduced you to watersheds. We learned what encompasses a watershed and the interconnected web each watershed weaves throughout the landscape - the most important takeaway from last month's message being that, "we all live in a watershed and are passively but intimately connected to one another because of we treat the land and the water that flows through it is vitally important for future generations of all communities including plants, animals and people". The Polk County Conservation Board recognizes these facts and laid out a 5-year Strategic Plan in 2014 with emphasis on water quality in four of the top ten priorities established.

So what are we doing here at Polk County Conservation to ensure that one of our most valuable resources is available for generations to come? 

Three major rivers flow through our county; the Raccoon, Des Moines and Skunk Rivers with numerous streams and tributaries flowing into these waterways. Urban and agriculture interests constitute the majority of usage within the watersheds of Iowa's most populous county. When the status of water quality took the spotlight as part of the Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond Referendum passed in November of 2012, PCC contributed to small water quality projects here and there but is now in a position to address the larger issue at hand.

The Initial Holdup 

Polk County Conservation has been without baseline data to which we can compare our current state of water quality. In order to become a leader in managing for and advocating on behalf of improved water quality in the county and state, we must have baseline data to know where to begin and how to move forward. In essence, we don't know what needs to be fixed until we know what is wrong. And we have a lot of ground to cover - 38+ miles of stream bank and 710+ acres of lakes, ponds, marshes, and river access that we maintain. 

The Next Step 

Water monitoring coordinators, Heidi Anderson and Joe Boyles, testing water transparency and nitrate level at Paw Creek.

In an effort to determine the overall health of local watersheds and identify areas of concern, PCC staff will inventory and monitor approximately 40 locations around Polk County where water quality is not currently monitored. PCC will work collaboratively with several cities and watershed associations to prevent duplication of data, and also to share results as a means to form the best picture of what is occurring throughout our waterways.

Staff participating in this initiative are those who have completed IOWATER training. IOWATER is Iowa Department of Natural Resources' citizen volunteer water monitoring program. Twenty Conservation staff have been trained in conducting basic water chemical, physical and biological assessments as taught through this program. Records of water transparency, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrates/nitrites, chloride and phosphates will be taken. The resulting data will drive where we go to next as an organization committed to healthy watersheds. If we find long term trends in specific bodies of water, that watershed (and the behaviors playing out within said watershed) will be studied more intensely. The areas we will be focusing on in 2015 include the following:
Beaver Creek
Walnut Creek
Fourmile Creek
Spring Creek
Mud Creek 
Camp Creek well as some standing bodies of water within our family of parks and wildlife areas.

We are committed to long term health and sustainability of our local watersheds as well as those downstream. Join in our efforts by doing your part in improving water quality as well - check out Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District's website to begin your water stewardship journey today! Interested in becoming a citizen volunteer water monitor? Click here for further information!