Seasons of Wildlife

Prairie Learning Center in snowstorm

Each season brings something new to the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna.  Visit throughout the year to watch the plants and animals change as they adapt to our varying Iowa climate.  We are open year-round!

  • Spring

    Marsh Marigold

    In the spring, plants begin greening up first in the burned areas. Refuge staff continue burning through much of the spring, depending on weather conditions. In areas that have burned, ant mounds are visible. The first bison calves usually arrive in mid-April. As the days warm, hibernating animals such as thirteen-lined ground-squirrels emerge from their underground homes. Birds that have left for the winter return and begin nesting. Early blooming plants like golden Alexanders and blue-eyed grass provide the first touches of color to the prairie.  Refuge staff plant seedlings in the prairie to increase diversity and improve the health of the prairie.

    "The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size." - Gertrude S. Wister

  • Summer

    June storm

    Summer is a busy time for life on the refuge. Animals and plants take advantage of the warmth and sunshine to grow and reproduce. Week after week, new species of flowers bloom, from purple spiderwort and orange butterfly milkweed through white prairie clover and yellow compass plant. Butterflies, bees, and other insects sip the nectar of the abundant flowers. The sky is filled with bird song as males defend their territories. Birds in the prairie and savanna busy themselves with nesting. Bison calves continue to be born and grow. By late summer the bison are in rut, with bulls snorting and fighting.

    “In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” - Aldo Leopold

  • Fall

    Fall prairie landscape

    As fall begins, many types of plants are still blooming, including many yellow species (sawtooth sunflower, tall coreopsis, several goldenrods). Some don’t begin blooming until well into fall (New England aster, frost aster). Grasses turn color in late summer and fall, to shades of purple or rust before curing to tan. Monarch butterfies rely on the late-blooming plants as they make their journey south in August, September, and October. Monarch migration peaks in September. Summer-blooming plants develop seeds, which are collected by refuge volunteers and staff for spring planting. Fall marks the first frost, and wildlife begin preparing for winter. Bison and elk grow heavier coats and store fat to keep them warm and nourished through the winter. If you are lucky, you may hear the bull elk bugling to attract females. Nesting migratory birds leave the area for warmer climates. Some birds, such as LeConte’s Sparrows, migrate through on their way from their nesting ground to the north to their wintering grounds in the south. Species such as Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, and American Tree Sparrows that breed to the north of the refuge arrive to spend the winter here. Refuge staff conduct burns in the fall if weather conditions are right. Staff also conduct the annual bison monitoring event each fall.

    "The radio announcers often speak of the fall colors in the hills this time of year, and people drive miles to see them, but I always appreciate the subtle prairie colors too." - Linda Hasselstrom

  • Winter

    Elk in snow

    Winter is a quiet season. In winter, most life on the refuge goes dormant. Grasses and other plants turn shades of tan. Seed heads of wildflowers may stand out from the grasses. Snow often covers the prairie in mid-winter, and ice occasionally coats the grasses and trees. Some animals take refuge underground, while some move around underneath the snow. After a snowfall, tracks of animals reveal who is still active—rabbits, deer, coyotes, and other animals. Winter is a good season to see the elk, which spend much of the summer seeking shade during the daytime. Winter is the best time to see short-eared owls on the refuge. They can often be seen flying near the roads in the early morning and late afternoon.

    "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape - the loneliness of it - the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it - the whole story doesn't show." - Andrew Wyeth