Down on the (Iowa) Bayou

DSC_0414The Google dictionary definition of bayou is “(in the southern US) a marshy outlet of a lake or river.” I hardly think of Palo Alto County, Iowa as “the southern US,” and the Brushy Bayou Wildlife Area is not what I would exactly call “marshy,” but it is near a river (the Des Moines River): the site effectively serves as a sort of backwater for an extensively-straightened section of that river. And walking around the property does remind me, just a bit, of some bayous I have visited in Louisiana. Come have a look…

Wide, well-mowed paths lead from the parking area into a maze of slightly elevated levees on otherwise low-lying floodplain forest. Over many years, the river meandered back and forth here, cutting new channels and abandoning old ones, and leaving behind crescent-shaped “oxbows,” almost all of which are quite shallow. These are forested wetlands, dank and shady…and quite thick with mosquitoes! The site reminds me of other floodplains I’ve visited among the 99wetlands journey. The essence of the floodplain is the hydrologic connection, and remembering that this land is—at some unpredictable, yet crucial time—holding back a huge volume of water, water that otherwise would be flooding farmlands or towns farther downstream. Floodplain forests are valuable to Iowans (and all who live downstream).


It’s not JUST about hydrology, of course. The intrepid hiker will find beauty here. The trees grow with twisted forms, buttressed trunks emerging from the surface, and sometimes leaning waaaaaay over some open water. Here and there, a tree loses its fight with gravity and topples into the swamp. Even that misfortune may not be the final chapter in the tree’s life: I saw many individuals sending up new, vertical stems from an old, fallen trunk. And so the story continues.



During my pre-visit research, I read that this wetland features a heron rookery, also implied in the image on the entrance sign. I have no doubt the boast is true; the habitat seems ideal. Sadly, I saw no signs of herons on my walk. But I was delighted to hear or see many other woodland birds: robins and other thrushes, warblers, woodpeckers, wood ducks. If you visit, no doubt you’ll enjoy other wildlife too. Just keep a close lookout for gators…it is a bayou, after all. Have fun! “Laissez le bon temps rouler!brushy_bayou_sign

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

2 thoughts on “Down on the (Iowa) Bayou”

  1. This is really interesting. I looked up an Iowa county map and then I looked up an original-vegetation-of-Iowa map showing 1852 to 1859. On that vegetation map, I hardly saw any woodland in Palo Alto County. The county seemed to be all yellow prairie and blue wetlands, though I could see a few tiny squiggles of green “forest” if I peered carefully.

    I’d be very interested in how the land that now holds this floodplain forest used to look in, say, 1855. Was it one of the tiny green squiggles? Or has the squiggle actually expanded since then?


    1. When I read maps of “historic vegetation” or the Government Survey done in the mid-1800s (such as at the ISU GIS lab:, I usually see little wooded area in most counties. I agree it’s true here. The notable exception would be places like Brushy Bayou: floodplains were historically “floodplain forest” but just up slope from the floodplain would be high-dry savanna or prairie.


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