Iowa Outdoors (#206)

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Nov 16, 2012 | 28 min

Hi, I'm Scott Siepker.

And I'm Kellie Kramer.  Welcome to this edition of Iowa Outdoors that is, in so many ways, for the birds.

On this episode of Iowa Outdoors, we go on an expedition with an organization that is on the lookout for young people with an interest in birding.

We'll meet an Iowan who spends a lot of time enjoying a bird's eye view of the Iowa landscape.

Over the last year we've kept an eagle eye on D1 and have information about the travels of the Decorah raptor fitted with a satellite tracker.

We'll share the work of wildlife photographer and naturalist Carl Kurtz to see how he has turned prairie plants into a cash crop.

And we'll find out more about the upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

We'll have all that and more --

So sit tight, Iowa Outdoors is about to begin.

Funding for Iowa Outdoors was provided through a REAP conservation education program grant.  Up to $350,000 are available annually to support educational projects about Iowa's natural resources.  Information is available at  The Gilchrist Foundation -- founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist -- furthering the philanthropic interest of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief.

Many of Iowa's natural wonders you'll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR's premiere resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.  Subscription information can be found online at

Here at Pike's Peak State Park, one can get a bird's eye view of the Mississippi River.  It's similar to what one Iowan sees when he is enjoying his favorite outdoor activity which involves a very large fan, a parachute and a whole lot of courage.

In rural Madison County, the hum of a distant motor may not be a combine in the midst of autumn harvest. The growing buzz can envelop a valley alongside the Middle River and once is descends below the horizon a unique image suddenly appears -- a young man floating underneath an expansive parachute with a massive fan strapped to his back.

This is Jason Jasnos, a longtime skydiver who discovered the wide open expanses of Iowa were perfect for a virgining aerial endeavor known as power paragliding.

Jasnos: Know your comfort zone.  Know where you are, you know, comfortable enough to fly.  I have a lot higher of a comfort zone than you probably might.  I'll fly in a little bit more turbulence than you might.  It takes years of getting comfortable with that feeling of being in turbulence, knowing how to handle it and just enjoying the flight regardless.

Flying alongside Jason is a visual feast, particularly in the midst of fall color.  The California transplant hugs the tree line valleys, flies only feet above countless golden acres of corn and provides a bird's eye view of Madison County's famous covered bridges.  Strapped with multiple cameras on board, Jason's images are one-of-a-kind.  But his long-tailored abilities are what keep him safe.  And hugging the surface of the Earth in a powered paraglider has its dangers.

Jasnos: That's the danger zone, when you fly low, okay.  But when I'm flying low I'm constantly aware of where the winds are and my relationship to objects with that wind.  So that keeps me out of a lot of trouble.

Jason is a thrill-seeker turned teacher.  His launching pad at the Winterset airport serves double duty as a training round for prospective clients, each hoping to fly over the Iowa countryside.

Jason Glaza: When I saw Jason flying around and I'd watch him coming in for landings or just taking off, many days when we'd be on the ground we couldn't skydive because of the clouds or winds, he could be out flying.

A young skydiver like Jason Glaza was lured to Iowa PPG by witnessing seemingly effortless flight with a powerful motor at your back. 

Jasnos: Once you get control of the wing just keep controlling it and then when I tell you to turn, go ahead and turn.

But for potential paragliders, weeks of tedious training begins with chute control, especially at takeoff.  Powered gliders must have expert control of their parachute.  Their hands not only control the direction and rate of descent but the acceleration of the propeller.  It is a balance that takes practice, practice and more practice.

Jasnos: Keep driving until the lines come up over your head.  At that point you can let go of the ayes and your back should be straight as possible at this point.

While PPG is an under-the-radar extreme sport in Iowa, it does fall under federal regulation.

Jasnos: It is an aircraft so the FAA has regulations what we can fly, where and when and you follow those regulations and you go through proper training and it is, I'd say it's absolutely safe.

When we met Glaza, he had spent weeks honing his skills on the ground.

Glaza: This cost $7,719.

The Iowa school teacher hoped a calm autumn evening would be perfect for his first flight.

Jasnos: He is doing great.  He is an A student.  I like his ambition, he is very motivated and that's what it takes.  It takes a certain amount of gumption to really make this thing happen.

With his own teacher Jason on the ground coaching his student via radio, Glaza began his first solo flight, drifting above the farm fields near Winterset.

Jasnos: It takes a moment to adjust to that mindset that I'm flying, yeah, I'm flying okay, here we go and after that it's like wow.  You just start soaking it all in and it becomes a spiritual experience just about. 

Glaza: Climbed a little more gradually, not as aggressively but you get a feel for it real quick.  It's a blast.  Oh man. 

Jasnos: I love watching them fly for the first time.  They're just feeling their wings.

The lessons Jasnos gives in Winterset are economical and designed for entry level beginners for Iowans hoping to witness the state from a bird's eye view.  Glaza's first flight is one of the reasons Jason Jasnos fostered Iowa PPG into a home-grown business.  He wants to share his experiences and the natural beauty of Iowa with everyone.

Jasnos: Beautiful flying, just everywhere was just colors and just better air.  I think I might have to take another flight. 

The observation deck at Pike's Peak State Park is on a bluff 500 feet above the Mississippi River Valley -- one of the four major flyways in North America.

People interested in bird-watching flock here from all over the world.  In Iowa, bird-watching is a popular pastime.  Within the state there are 19 clubs dedicated to our fine feathered friends.

Are you all seeing the swallow, which one we're talking about, the one that is relatively low out here --

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 51.3 million Americans, or 20% of the population, say they watch birds.  Part of the appeal might be because if you're outdoors, no matter where you go or what you're doing, there always seems to be a bird close at hand.

Carl Bendorf: You can do birding 365 days of the year.  You can listen for owls at night.  You can look for birds the middle of the day.  You can feed birds in your backyard.

Carl Bendorf is the executive director of Iowa Young Birders.  The mission of the club is to get young people to learn more about nature and conservation issues through studying and enjoying birds.

Bendorf: Our focus is ages eight to eighteen but we've actually had younger kids coming on our field trips and we're just trying to create an environment where they can get out together and be with other young birders and try to show them a little bit about the joy and fun of learning about birds.

The club meets once a month and has outings across the state.  Currently there are 30 active members, but one doesn't have to be a member of the club to go on a field trip.

Bendorf: We're very committed to being family friendly on our field trips.  We think it is critical that parents are involved because, to be honest, if parents aren't supporting the kids they're not going to be able to come out birding.

There are over 10,000 bird species worldwide with over 900 species found in North America.  Here in Iowa there are 425 different species of birds. 

Bendorf: Like many organisms, birds tend to be very habitat specific and so in order to see some different habitats, get some different points of view we do sometimes get in the car and move to a different vantage point.


There's plenty of great information about birding on the Internet and if you're interested in learning more about Iowa Young Birders you can visit their website at

Bendorf: We've got links on our website that will lead you to some other resources but the main thing is get out and go birding.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the number of pheasant hunters in the state outnumber all other hunters and those hunters have a big impact on Iowa's economy.  A recent study indicates that excluding license fees $85 million is spent annually by hunters to hunt pheasants in Iowa.

Todd Bogenschutz: As far as the economic impact, you know, it's huge.  If you go back to, oh, the late 90s when we had some 200,000 pheasant hunters the economic impact on the state was, total economic impact was in the $200 million range annually.  And so now we're down to 60,000 hunters and so, yeah, it's a really significant impact, it really impacts our rural counties in particular.

This year the annual roadside count that measures the number of pheasants in Iowa showed an increase of 16% over last year's record low estimate.  It is the first increase seen in more than six years.

Bogenschutz: Our total nesting habitat, I've tracked it since about 1940 and we're total statewide probably almost the lowest level we've ever seen in the state for potential pheasant habitat.  This real drive down in the population has been weather related but certainly when you think about if we have good weather they're not going to be able to get back up to where they were just because we don't have the places for them to live anymore.

Wet weather and tough winters have been major contributors to a decrease in the pheasant population.  But a loss of habitat has also played a role.  No one can control the weather, but Pheasants Forever and the Iowa DNR have teamed up in an effort to control the loss of habitat.

Jared Wiklund: The partnership itself is based between the two groups and it involves a couple of different things.  Number one, it's getting our chapters involved in going out and doing wildlife management area enhancement, so taking our public areas, making them the best that they can be, the best habitat available and showcasing that for others to follow.  One other part of this is that the surrounding landowners around here actually do an excellent job at habitat and we want to do our part to add on to that.  Whether that is through CRP incentive payments to get people to put more conservation programs on their ground to putting in food plots, this new program is going to allow us to work with surrounding landowners, form a secure core area of wildlife habitat.  We're doing great things for water quality.  It is just another step in the right direction in Iowa.

Two years ago there were around 60,000 pheasant hunters in the state.  Last year that number dropped to 46,000 with a record low 109,000 birds being harvested.  This year's increase is both good for pheasant hunters and for the economy.

Bogenschutz: I think hunters should have a pretty easy time finding the spots to pheasant hunt.  I think I'd just caution folks that people might sometimes have too high expectation.  You know, we can't get back there in just one year.  We've got a great start but we actually need probably at least two more years of this kind of weather to get back to what Iowans expect for pheasant hunting.

It's been said that Pike's Peak State Park is one of the most photographed places in Iowa.  But there's much more to this park than just a great view of the Mississippi River.  The park is named after Lieutenant Zebulon Pike who in 1805 was sent to explore the Mississippi Valley and select locations suitable for military posts.  Pike recognized the bluff as an important location for a strategic fort.  And while everyone agreed they still put the fort on the other side of the river near Prairie du Chien.  And in case you're wondering, Lieutenant Pike also discovered Pike's Peak in Colorado.

Before Pike arrived, the area was inhabited by Native Americans of the woodland culture.  Within the park there are 60 mounds that were created over 800 years ago.  Most are conical or linear in shape but there are also effigy mounds in the shape of animals, like this one in the shape of a bear.

Along the 11.5 miles of trails within the park, hikers can find fossil evidence that proves that on more than one occasion Iowa was covered by a shallow inland sea.  A half-mile long boardwalk takes to you Bridal Veil Falls where a spring-fed creek tumbles over rocks of the Platteville formation.  Bridal Veil Falls takes its name from the icy veil that forms as a frozen cascade in the winter.

Just north of Pike's Peak State Park is the McGregor Office and Visitor's Center of the upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.  To make sure there was a safe haven for migratory birds on their journey, the upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge was established in 1924.  In total, the refuge covers just over 240,000 acres and is one of the largest blocks of flood plain habitat in the lower 48 states.  It is where nearly half of North America's bird species and about 40% of its water fowl spend at least part of their lives.

Matt Tschirgi: Behind us today we have nearly 100,000 canvas back ducks in the closed area and they are just passing through on their way south.  Tunder swans are beginning to show up and they will be passing through on their way to Chesapeake Bay so they have a different migratory route.

The refuge extends 261 miles from the Chippewa River in Wisconsin to near Rock Island, Illinois.  The nearly quarter of a million acres that it covers, however, are not contiguous and parts of the refuge lie in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa.  Besides offices at the headquarters, there is a visitor's center where more can be learned about the refuge in a hands on way.

Carl Kurtz is a naturalist, author and nature photographer who farms in central Iowa.  Though his cash crop is a little interesting in that it doesn't involve corn or soybeans.

If you see Carl Kurtz combining from a distance, you probably wouldn't think anything of it.  Get a little closer and you might wonder what it is he's harvesting.  His cash crop is unusual for Iowa in that it doesn't involve corn or soybeans.  Kurtz has turned his farm into a prairie and what he harvests every fall are its seeds. 

Kurtz: Instead of a monoculture you have what would by a polyculture and it is a perennial polyculture.  And we probably get about 50 different species in that harvest each year.  And it's very interesting and very different.

After taking over the family farm, Kurtz raised conventional crops for ten years before planting parts of it in prairie in 1988.  It took four years after that before he could harvest and begin selling prairie seeds.

Kurtz: I did traditional crops for a number of years but because we were a pretty small operation I came to the conclusion that if I kept that up I was going to go broke.  And we started really small.  Any business if you start small your risks are much lower.  So we started with an acre and now we have about 150 acres of area that is in some form of prairie.

The prairie, for the most part, plants itself every year so Carl avoids the costs of planting each spring and his other expenditures are low.  That helps him turn a profit.  But like nature, business is often cyclical.

Kurtz: When corn was $1.00 a bushel and beans were $3.00 we were doing really well.  And, of course, the high price of corn and beans has taken a lot of conservation land out of existence. And, of course, that has affected the demand for prairie seed.

Like all crops, weather has an effect on Kurtz's harvest.  Plants germinate at different times depending on how wet, dry, cool or hot it is.  It affects what seeds are there at the time he combines.  And like farmers across the state his harvest has to be dried before it is bagged and sold.

Kurtz: We put it in long rows and then we turn it until it gets really, really dry so that we can bag it and then it will be bagged usually about three weeks after harvest.  I really like prairie, just fascinating.  It's a very complex plant community that is self-sustaining and it is fun to work in it because if you like flowers they start blooming in April, the end of April, early May and they're still blooming in October.  So you'll have flowers blooming all summer.  It is great as bird cover.  Certainly if there was more prairie we'd probably have more pheasants.  But a lot of song birds use the prairie and then there would be mammals in it.  They're all part of that whole system.  Besides the fact that it is good for watershed protection, good for soil protection and it's just great to go out and walk around in it and to work in it.  It's just a great community. 

Besides being a farmer, Kurtz is also an author and has written a practical guide to prairie reconstruction where he outlines the procedures and problems involved in reintroducing diverse prairie communities to the landscape.  He has also penned Iowa's Wild Places.  The book is a collection of his photographs and person observations of Iowa's natural wonders and the basis for a 1996 Iowa PBS documentary.

Kurtz: Initially I think I started out photographing because I hunted.  If you're a hunter in a sense it is an excuse to go out and experience nature.  And so if you trade the gun for a camera then you have that excuse year round.  It's not just a seasonal thing.  And then I could see that this was an opportunity to help most of the general public to gain an appreciation for nature.

At the time of the documentary, Kurtz was shooting photographs on 4x5 film with an old portrait camera.  But all things change with time and today he uses a digital camera.

Kurtz: People are taking great stuff on iPhones.  This is better than that, of course, it's got more capability and interchangeable lenses give you the opportunity to shoot wildlife.  So lots easier, a lot more fun.

What Carl takes pictures of has also changed.  He still likes photographing sweeping environments but he is also looking for fine details within different environments.  His hope, however, has been a constant in that his photographs will motivate and inspire others to look around and enjoy all the natural things that can be found right here in Iowa.

Kurtz: Photography is not a substitute, it's just a way to encourage people to go out and explore the world that's out there.

In the past, the best way to track a bird was to attach a band to its leg and then hope its travels would be reported by people who saw the band.  But now with satellite GPS technology a bird can be tracked 24/7 and that technology is being applied to a very famous Decorah eagle.

In 2011, Iowa Outdoors shared the story of Bob Anderson and the Decorah eagle cam.  It was in 2007 when Anderson placed a web cam above an eagle's nest near a fish hatchery on the edge of Decorah, Iowa.  Since then over 275 million people have been able to tune in on the Internet and watch the pair of eagles as they laid their eggs then raised their young. 

Under the watchful eye of the Internet, people from all over the world could keep track of the eagles 24/7 until they left the nest.  For many, the eagles may have been out of sight, but not out of mind.

Anderson: Everybody asks me what happened to the babies from last year.  That is a question that I've heard since we've been filming at this nest and we can't answer it.  So by putting a satellite transmitter on one of the babies we'll be able to follow it for years and years and years, get GPS coordinates and we'll learn, we'll find out.

To achieve his goal, Anderson on July 11th of 2011 trapped one of the eagles that had hatched that year.  Once the bird was captured he and Brett Mandernack of Wisconsin's Eagle Valley Natural Preserve fitted the female eagle with a solar powered GPS transmitter capable of tracking the eagle anywhere in the world.

Anderson: We're going to monitor a local, indigenous bird from a population because the parents don't migrate.  They stay here year round.  But do the babies migrate?  We don't know.  We're going to find out.  We're going to answer that question.  We're actually going to learn a little bit of science here and we're real excited about that.

Since the eagle, now known as D1 was released, people have been able to follow the bird's travels over the Internet.  In March of 2012, D1 began a trek north that took her out of Iowa and all the way to Polar Bear Provincial Park in northern Canada, some 1,000 miles away.

Anderson: Well, we do know that a lot of young eagles tend to go north and that's just a general trend and this last summer when she went to northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota nobody was surprised.  But for her to set off for the Arctic and cover it in just a few days and be 1,000 miles, she is closer to the North Pole than she is Iowa right now.  So, I mean, that's just amazing.  A lot of people are really surprised.  Who would have guessed that an Iowa eagle would be up in the Arctic?

In September, D1 turned around and began traveling south and in November was just north of Elkader, Iowa.  It was an opportunity for Anderson to track her down and get a visual sighting.  Driving with an Omni antenna mounted to the roof of his car Anderson got readings every minute which let him know if he was getting closer to the eagle.  The higher the number, the closer he was getting.

Anderson: I'm thinking, yeah, we're within, we're real close to her right now.  I should switch the attenuator.

To get a better idea of the direction he needed to travel, however, Anderson need to use a handheld antenna.  Every stop took more than four minutes as he checked four compass points to determine which direction he needed to go.  After several miles of driving and several stops, visual confirmation was made with the transmitter visible on D1's back.

Anderson: It was an exciting day.  It's always nice when you get a signal and it makes it even better when you get to track down the bird and confirm that you can see the transmitter on the bird's back.  To actually get a signal, an hour ago when we got the first signal I just, I get a little bit giddy almost and then as the signal strength increases you just kind of, you know that you're getting close.  So it was a little bit difficult today, it really was, but we finally cracked it and got her.  It's incredible, it really is.

This summer, Anderson fitted one of this year's Decorah eagles, a male, with another transmitter.  It's possible to keep track of both birds by visiting the raptor resource project's website at  In other news from Decorah, the adult eagles have begun building a new nest.  It's about 300 feet from their old nest.

Anderson: It's pretty common.  About 43% of all bald eagle pairs build auxiliary nests, sometimes three.  We have one nest in Minnesota where they built two nests in the same tree and they bounce between, back and forth between the nests.  So we don't know what's going to happen.  Sometimes they build an auxiliary nest and never use it.  So we'll just have to cross our fingers.  But if they do use the Decorah nest this next spring or this next winter for egg laying we won't be able to have a Decorah eagle cam.  And it's burning holes in my stomach but there's nothing I can do.  There's just nothing I can do about it.

We'll wrap up this edition of Iowa Outdoors here at the stone shelter at the park. 

You can rent this shelter and build a fire like I did, all by myself.  And if you want to check out any of our past episodes go to

There you'll find just some of the adventures that can be found right here in Iowa.

I'm going to show Kellie how this is done.

Oh, really.

You take this and you --

Just give it to me.

Funding for Iowa Outdoors was provided through a REAP conservation education program grant.  Up to $350,000 are available annually to support educational projects about Iowa's natural resources.  Information is available at  The Gilchrist Foundation -- founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist -- furthering the philanthropic interest of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief.

Many of Iowa's natural wonders you'll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR's premiere resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.  Subscription information can be found online at