Heading north on Emmet County Road N40 drivers are welcomed by a centuries-old oak tree lined canopy leading to the Ingham-High Wetland Complex Wildlife Area, a unique wild oasis nine miles southeast of Estherville.
The 3,100-acre area is made up of a series of natural sloughs, shallow lakes and native prairie and oak savanna that supports active and passive recreation, a hands on college field lab and was the original site where a population of Canada geese was kept that helped reintroduce this iconic waterfowl species to the rest of Iowa.
“We are managing the area as a native ecosystem, and it’s a little unique in that we have shallow lakes next to an oak savanna next to grasslands. You don’t find those combinations of habitats in many places,” said Rob Patterson, wildlife technician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Prairie Lakes Unit.
Patterson said one management focus is to maintain the high quality prairies that are part of the complex, each with a good blend of various native plants. He said these prairies are impressive and seemingly each time after they burn it they notice another native species coming back.
“That’s wild garlic,” he says pointing to the native plant. Over there, he said, is spider wort, and white indigo, and butterfly milkweed, rattlesnake master, compass plant, showy tick trefoil, prairie sage, prairie sedge and more.
“This is a high quality prairie restoration that has been has been seeded for 15 years. It’s maintained by using prescribed fire. This restoration benefits wildlife and gives people passing by a brief view of what a high quality prairie restoration looks like,” Patterson said.
This particular 40-acre prairie was burned in April and within days it began to green up with lush new growth. Plants are now above the knee and it’s full of birds and bugs. Every week, something new is blooming.
To the east side of the area, pelicans sneak behind a knob of oak trees on East Slough.
East Slough is one of many sloughs on the complex where DNR staff conducts water level manipulation that allows emergent vegetation to reappear and provide critical migration habitat for shorebirds. When water quality in these sloughs takes a turn for the worse, the water is removed. The exposed mudflats attract an impressive number of shorebirds, common species like yellowlegs and dowitchers as well as some rare species like black-necked stilts, American avocets and ruddy turnstones. Patterson is hoping sandhill cranes find this area.
The North Slough is home to a nesting pair of trumpeter swans who appear to have successfully hatched three cygnets (young swans). Nesting bald eagles reside on the south part of the complex.
Another management focus is to restore the oak savannah by removing invasive understory species like honeysuckle, buckthorn and prickly ash to allow sunlight to hit the forest floor.
“Native forest understory species are beginning to show up. Wildlife species have reacted well to this and so to have hunters,” he said.
Native plant species like Jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine and blue cohosh now inhabit areas that were once void of any ground vegetation. This type of management is a long-term commitment, taking years, sometimes decades, for the savanna ecosystem and native vegetation to recover.
Ingham Lake, itself, is another ecosystem.
The lake is stocked with walleye fry and fingerlings and fishing has been good. It can also be good, at certain times, for yellow perch and crappies. Ingham Lake is home to brown bullheads, which is pretty unique species not found in many Iowa lakes.
Unlike its cousins – yellow bullhead and black bullhead – this brown bullheads look like a mini version of flathead catfish. Lucky anglers may catch a glimpse of the orange spotted sunfish, but not likely hook this small, colorful panfish.
The lake is also a draw for visitors staying at the Wolden campground.
The popular county board run campground, on High Lake, fills with campers from as far away as both coasts, Canada and across Iowa, but most come from the four nearby counties. Wolden has hosted camping clubs from across the country and is now included as one club’s annual stop. It’s the only campground on the chain of lakes and home to Emmet County’s Nature Center.
Eric Anderson has been the conservation board director for 28 years. He said he is seeing new faces visiting Wolden this year with Marble Beach campground at Spirit Lake closed for renovation.
“They were saying they didn’t know this (campground) existed; didn’t know it was here,” Anderson said. Emmet County recently began offering paddle sports to Wolden’s menu and interest is growing.
Paddle sports aren’t the only activity seeing more participation; so have the outdoor camps hosted by his county naturalists.
Anderson said the demand necessitated hiring a full time naturalist, then adding a seasonal naturalist and a summer intern.
“Interest in these camps has exploded,” he said.
While many of Ingham-High’s benefits are enjoyed during the warmer months, the focus shifts in the fall to hunting and trapping.
Doves, waterfowl, pheasants, turkey, deer, squirrel, plus furbearers. There is evidence that river otters are in the area. But goose hunters take note – Canada geese are protected here.
Drew Howing, environmental studies program coordinator for Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, brings his 20-25 students to different wildlife areas a few times each year to expose them to new places. He uses these areas to build their appreciation for all the things around them.
Howing has scheduled water quality labs at Ingham-High so students see firsthand the effects of erosion and invasive carp can have on a system and directly compares it to one that has been restored and has better water clarity.
The current summer intern for the DNR’s Prairie Lakes Unit Ingham office is a student of Howing’s.
Hot spot for birdwatching
The size and position of Ingham-High in the state, plus its diversity of habitats, makes it a popular destination for bird watchers.
“Birdwatching, especially the warbler migration, if the conditions are right, it can be pretty incredible,” Patterson said.
On spring evenings, visitors can witness a unique display of the sky dancer – woodcock display flights during courtship.
“When you hit it right, they’re everywhere. Super cool,” Howing said.