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157. Saylorville Lake, Ankeny, Iowa

On the Des Moines River in the heart of Iowa, a 17-mile-long reservoir with a bird list of 325 species.

I love birding Saylorville Lake, an Important Bird Area. No matter how little time I have, it often produces something unexpected. Almost every North American bird family has been represented on it or in the surrounding parks and recreation areas. Within a 10-mile radius of the reservoir, the bird list exceeds 325 species.

A lap around the lake can be as quick as 45 minutes or as long as a full day. Birding from pull-offs on the dam produces waterfowl, grebes, gulls, and the occasional American Pipit or Snow Bunting. The visitor center is a wonderful stop for songbirds. Cherry Glen and Oak Grove Recreation Areas offer excellent lake views. Their campgrounds and picnic areas typically hold nuthatches, thrushes, warblers, and woodpeckers.

Sandpiper Recreation Area is a beach with a reputation for unexpected birds (Black-tailed Gull in 2010, Arctic Tern in 2012). Jester Park, known for shorebirds, has had its own special magic: Wood Stork and Black Vulture (seen on the same day!), Mottled Duck, Roseate Spoonbill, and Gyrfalcon.

Pick one spot to focus on or hit them all. You won’t be disappointed any time of the year. — Paul Roisen

Paul Roisen is the president of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union. He participates in the Breeding Bird Survey and the Iowa Breeding Bird Atlas and is an avid bird photographer.

157. Saylorville Lake, Ankeny, Iowa


Saylorville Lake is a 17-mile-long reservoir on the Des Moines River 11 miles upstream from the capital of Des Moines. From the city, take Merle Hay Rd. north to NW Beaver Dr. Turn left, drive 1.1 miles to NW 78th Ave., and turn right. Proceed to a T intersection, turn left, and then take the first right to viewing areas on the Saylorville Dam.

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At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location: 41°42’28.36″N 93°40’19.39″W


Oak and other hardwood forests, pine forest, ravines, lake, beaches, wetlands, riparian areas.


Hilly, with many ravines. Hard-surfaced access at most birding areas.


Spring: Piping, American Golden-, and Black-bellied Plovers, Forster’s and Caspian Terns, migrating ducks, more than 25 warbler species, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Wood, Hermit, and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, and sparrows. Summer: Egrets, herons, Black- and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Osprey, Bobolink, grassland sparrows. Fall: Red-throated, Pacific, and Common Loons, ducks, sandpipers, dowitchers, warblers, and sparrows. Winter: Gulls and waterfowl. Fall through spring: American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl. Rarities: Black-tailed, Iceland, and Little Gulls, Harlequin and Mottled Ducks, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Arctic Tern, all three jaeger species, Cave Swallow, Yellow-billed Loon, Black Vulture, and Gyrfalcon.

When to go

Spring and fall best for migrants. Summer for breeding species; winter for gulls.


Biking and walking trail skirts the east side of lake. Numerous restrooms and picnic areas. Food is available in Ankeny or Polk City.


Army Corps of Engineers-managed reservoir. Fees charged at recreation areas April through October only for boating and swimming ($1-$4 per day; $30 annual pass) or camping ($20 per night).


Bring a spotting scope for the lake; best viewing is from the east side in the morning, when the sun is at your back. Bring a lunch and walk the campgrounds and picnic areas.

For more info

Saylorville Lake
Iowa Ornithologists’ Union
Iowa Audubon
Des Moines Audubon

Sites nearby

Big Creek Lake State Park
Two miles north of Polk City on N. Broadway. Excellent for waterfowl and grassland songbirds spring through fall and waterfowl in winter.

Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt
8700 NE 126th Ave., Maxwell. Covers 7,300 acres along almost 10 miles of the Skunk River. Restored wetlands provide habitat for bitterns, shorebirds, owls, sparrows, warblers, flycatchers, and Sandhill Crane.

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