Off Hours: How to start bird-watching near Des Moines in two hours … – Des Moines Register

Salvēte, readers, I’m your Des Moines arts and entertainment reporter and my favorite Pokémon is the orbicular owl known as Rowlet.
Welcome to Off Hours, your free weekly newsletter from the Des Moines Register that showcases all things fun you can do in central Iowa. If you sign up for our newsletter, you get to see this early Thursday morning in your inbox.
When I was a kid, my grandparents got a pair of binoculars they used to spot birds near the lake next to their western Michigan residence. Those binoculars came into my life around the apex of my interest in animals and effectively kicked off my brief interest in binoculars/telescopes as a child.
Unfortunately, rather than getting into casual taxonomy or bird-watching, I discovered Pokémon, and my life pretty much spiraled out of control from there.
But when I got a message in my inbox from Marc Parnell about his new bird-watching book, I was intrigued. “The Birding Pro’s Field Guides: The Birds of Iowa,” is a recent book collecting 130 of the most common birds in the state. (Very manageable next to the original 151 Pokémon.)
“When I’d long moved away from home and stayed in regular contact with my mother, I’d set up a bird feeding station in her back yard and we’d talk almost daily about the birds that were visiting,” Marc told me regarding how he started putting together the dozens of “The Birding Pro’s Field Guides” he’s published over the last 14 months. “I put together an 18-page Word document for her where she could just refer to it and get a basic idea of what she could be seeing out there, and she outgrew that in about seven or eight months.”
To get into birding, Marc recommended checking out the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge at 9981 Pacific St. in Prairie City, noting that he admires how the refuge has attempted to preserve the diminishing grasslands of Iowa. Thankfully, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge also has a guide for how to get started birding if you’ve never done it before.
So, when I decided to spend a day attempting to do bird-watching, I took Marc’s advice and grabbed a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Since Beaverdale Books didn’t have Marc’s book in stock when I visited, I ended up grabbing “Birds of Iowa Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela (there are only 112 birds in this one). For binoculars, I grabbed a pair of Adorrgon 12×42 HD binoculars ($74.29, Sears) that came with an adaptor that let me use my phone camera to take pictures of what I was looking at. 
Without knowing how feasible it might be, I decided I wanted to try to spot the three Iowa birds Marc had decided to highlight for me: the trumpeter swan, the wood duck and the northern harrier.
After briefly getting lost in the misty morning of April 21, I found my way to the Neal Smith visitor center and took to Tallgrass Trail. Whether it was because of the heavy mist of the mere fact it was a Thursday morning, but I had the trail all to myself.
Even before I was out of the parking lot at the visitor’s center, I’d already encountered a bird a didn’t recognize. I’m pretty sure the bird was a killdeer, which my field guide told me is “known for its broken wing impression to draw intruders away from nest.”
On the trail itself, I ran into birds I was already familiar with, like robins and red-winged blackbirds.
Thank god Marc had recommended using even fairly inexpensive binoculars. I got the most joy of the morning when I spotted an avian I thought was just another red-winged blackbird at a distance until I looked through my binoculars and realized it was a brilliant shade of blue.
At the end of about an hour and a half on the trail, I found I was having a legitimately nice time! Walking around and spotting birds did scratch the sense of discovery, surprise and desire to know more I get from playing Pokémon video games while also being meditative and calming.
What are some of your favorite birds to see in the Hawkeye State? Send a raven or e-mail me at with some of your bird-watching tips/suggestions.
While there are tons more birds to see at Neal Smith, these are the three places and ways of bird-watching I’m looking at as I consider taking up the hobby.
1. Clive Greenbelt Trail. This central Iowa trail is a little more than 11 miles in length and is located in Clive. While this is a pretty well-trodden trail, possibly making it less likely to attract more shy birds, it meanders through forests and bodies of water, meaning I can probably find a decent variety of birds in the area. 
2. The Iowa Raptor Project. The University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College are collaborating on helping to preserve Iowa’s raptor population. Located at 2095 Mehaffey Bridge Road NE in Solon, the place is open daily April through October from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and November through March from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for self-guided tours. 
3. Decorah Eagle Cam. Maybe you’re like me and spend the majority of a given day behind a desk in downtown Des Moines. While there are certainly bald eagles in the area, you can see them up close and personal through A product of the Raptor Resource Project, the website gives those who tune in live footage of the nest of a family of bald eagles with two eaglets. Fans watch from the first time the eagles nest, to laying and hatching eggs, to fledging. 
Where do you do your bird-watching? Drop me a line at with your top spots.
Roasted duck curry, $16.95: This roasted duck curry is the tastiest dish I’ve eaten for Off Hours so far. The carrots were fresh and crunchy, the sauce was rich and — while I found the spice well balanced — I would recommend kicking the spiciest option for those with a fondness.
Get it: Banana Leaf Asian Bistro, 5515 Mills Civic Parkway #140, West Des Moines. Banana Leaf is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday. There are online ordering options through You can also call the restaurant at 515-440-0854.
Banana peanut butter shake, $3.99: After finishing walking around in the morning fog of last Thursday, the day became surprisingly bright and warm. This rich shake was a wonderful chaser after a couple of hours wandering around the Neal Smith reserve. I can’t speak for how healthy it actually is, but the mix of peanut butter and banana flavors was enough to trick me into feeling good about its health benefits.
Get it: LJ’s Burgers & Ice Cream, 3702 Second Ave., is open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Currently, the shop is not open for dine-in options, but orders can be taken through the drive-thru. Find out more about the venue at
Friday night: The sequel to a 2014 comedic play from a Des Moines writer, “Girls Weekend 2” is having its world premiere this Friday night! Matthew McIver, artistic director of Iowa Stage Theatre Co., has said that this sequel is one of the funniest comedies to be produced by ISTC. Head over to the Des Moines Stoner Theater, 221 Walnut St., at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the show start at $40 and can be found via
Saturday morning: Books is the theme for Saturday with two events in particular on the horizon. The Des Moines Public Library will host Día del Niño — a free celebration of early childhood reading — from 10 a.m. to noon at Union Park (2009 Saylor Road) with STEM stations, piñatas, a bilingual story walk and more! Further information can be found through
Saturday afternoon: Saturday is also Indie Bookstore Day, so if you have a local bookstore you enjoy, this weekend is a great time to patronize them. Beaverdale Books (2629 Beaver Ave.) will have readings and snacks all through the day. Storyhouse Bookpub (505 E. Grand Ave.) in the East Village will be open late and Dog Eared Books (203 Main St.) in Ames will have 10% off merch.
Sunday afternoon: “Tiny Beautiful Things” is Tallgrass Theatre Co.’s latest production opening this weekend. The play is about a struggling writer asked to take over an anonymous advice column. The theater is located in West Des Moines at 2019 Grand Ave., and tickets for the 2 p.m. Sunday show are $33 and can be purchased through
Tell me what you’re doing this weekend. I’m always looking for new things to do. Shoot me an email at
While I don’t have a yard or a balcony to do any bird-watching from home, the introduction of “Birds of Iowa” talks about bird feeding as an easy way to get into bird-watching without leaving your own back yard. Wild Birds Unlimited has a Des Moines location, 801 73rd St., where those interested can find feeders, bird seeds, and other accessories for those with the desire to set up their own back yard bird feeder.
The shop has an all-seasons hobby guide on its website, but store staff can answer more specific questions in-person or by calling 515-222-1234.
Now that I’ve completed my first attempt at bird-watching, you can expect to see some more typical entertainment stories from me.
Recently I wrote an article on the new Ballet Des Moines production, “Of Gravity and Light.” It’s also worth mentioning that “Hamilton” is coming to town in a couple of weeks and I got a chance to speak with the actor leading this tour.
Next week you can come back here for an Off Hours from Des Moines Register courts reporter William Morris, who’ll be writing about his work with the Des Moines Choral Society.
Thanks for reading, and if a friend forwarded this newsletter to you, feel free to sign up for your own copy.