BELMOND- Walking south past the field of sunflowers to the crest of the gently rolling hill offers visitors views of a diverse 1,850-acre wetland and rolling prairie complex in northern Wright County. As far as the eye can see, its hills, meadows and small wetlands that make up the famous Lower Morse Wildlife Reserve.
The area has been a work in progress over the years through the removal of trees and shrubs, the planting of grasslands and the restoration of wetlands.
“We manage this area as a prairie wetland complex that requires regular disturbance to keep trees and shrubs from taking over,” said TJ Herrick, wildlife biologist for the Department of Resources’ Clear Lake Unit. naturals of Iowa.
The purpose of the disturbance – prescribed fire and targeted and limited grazing by a local cattle rancher – is to create and maintain high quality grassland habitat for the benefit of a diverse wildlife community.
The meadow changes throughout the summer, showcasing different plants along the way. Spiderwort, round-headed clover, prairie blazing star, black-eyed Susan, master rattlesnake, mountain mint, compass plant, lead plant, and white indigo can all be seen. Remnants of native grassland were discovered on part of the Lower Morse after ash and cottonwood trees were removed from a former pasture.
“There had never been a plow in this area, so we thought there was a good chance of finding remnant grassland and we did,” he said.
The diverse grassland is home to Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlark, Bell’s Vireos, Dickcissels and more. Sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans have returned to nest near wetlands. Six cranes, with their distinctive screeching cries, could first be heard and then seen flying low over a hill to the east.
“Lower Morse is important for grassland birds and was designated a Bird Conservation Area in 2009. It is also important for migrating waterfowl,” he said.
Duck hunters have options here – walk in to hunt small, shallow potholes or launch a boat at the mitigation marsh or Morse Lake, once it fills up, for a wider aquatic experience.
“It’s a prime duck hunting area and year after year it’s perfect for pheasant hunting. It’s a place that gets a lot of phone calls from non-residents,” Herrick said.
The sunflower fields are also arousing interest. But before attracting hunters and doves, it will serve as a background for family and engagement photos and for photos of seniors (not to mention a wave of ‘selfies’).
The Multi-Species Inventory Monitoring Program under the Wildlife Diversity Program had teams on the Lower Morse Complex in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2021, to survey the wildlife species that inhabit the area.
Crews identified various wildlife species considered to be in greatest need of conservation, including American Bittern, Belted Kingfisher, Black Terns, Broad-winged Hawk, Brown Thrasher, Cricket Frog Blanchard, tiger salamander, common yellowthroat, eastern tyrant, grasshopper sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, hen harrier, monarch butterfly, northern prairie skink, plains pocket gopher, and the least weasel, to name a few.
The 90-acre Morse Lake suffered from poor water quality due to re-suspension of silt and lack of aquatic vegetation caused by a high population of carp. The lake has been lowered to remove fish and revive aquatic vegetation. A new water control structure has been installed which provides more control over water level management and the ability to simulate natural water level fluctuations.
The project included the restoration of a downstream wetland and a fish barrier below the wetland to prevent fish from re-entering the wetland and Morse Lake.
The water level in the lake is low, but once it returns to the crest it will be stocked with a mix of northern pike, yellow perch, largemouth bass and bluegill. The improved water quality will benefit waterfowl and other wildlife, and the new lake phenomenon will produce harvestable-sized fish by the end of the second year.