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Nature Programs

Des Moines Parks and Recreation has incredible parks where visitors can enjoy different types of recreation including connecting with nature and wildlife. Park users of all ages have the ability to explore and learn more about their environment when they attend nature-based programs. Studies have shown that children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied chances to play in the out-of doors.  Seniors enjoy the ability to be active and social while they continue their lifetime of learning and new experiences. Everyone can enjoy the hands on learning and experience new activities during every season of the year. 

Des Moines Parks and Recreation offers many popular seasonal programs such as Birding Basics (spring), Stand Up Paddleboarding (summer), Monarch Tagging (fall), and Snowshoeing (winter). Fishing events and Bald Eagle nest watching are great family activities along with many other programs for you to enjoy.

Celebrate Earth Day at Home

Nature Programs

Star Viewing Program

Parks and Recreation partners with the Science Center of Iowa and the Des Moines Astronomical Society to bring stargazing to Ewing Park during the warmer parts of the season and at Birdland Shelter for the winter events. Telescopes and information about what you are viewing in the sky are provided. Everyone is welcome and if you have a telescope of your own, feel free to bring it along.

Due to Covid-19 conditions Star Viewing Programs are currently CANCELLED 

 Date  Time  Location  What is Visible
 Sunday, February 9  7 p.m. - 9 p.m.  Birdland Shelter  Full Moon Supermoon - Full Snow Moon
 Saturday, March 7  8 p.m. - 10 p.m.    Ewing Park, Lilac Arboretum  Waxing Gibbous Moon, Venus
 Sunday, July 5  9:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.  Ewing park, Lilac Arboretum  Full Moon - Full Buck Moon, Jupiter, Saturn
 Saturday, August 15  6 p.m. - Midnight  Ewing park, Lilac Arboretum  STAR Party, Perseids Meteor Shower and Movie
 Saturday, October 31  7 p.m. - 9 p.m.  Ewing park, Lilac Arboretum  Full Moon - Blue Moon TOO SPOOKY
 Saturday, December 12  6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.  Ewing park, Lilac Arboretum  Geminids Meteor Shower, Old Moon


Birding Basics

MallardCovid -19 caused us to miss most of the 2020 Birding Basics program that took place during spring migration.  We look forward to seeing everyone face to face next spring.

While Covid-19 is still a factor, the  parks remain open and we encourage you to practice social distancing while bird watching on your own.

March through May, participants meet on Wednesdays at Gray’s Lake starting at 11 a.m.  and together, take a casual walk in search of migrating and residential birds. During the first half of the season, waterfowl are the main focus. Pelicans, Coots, Mergansers and various ducks are common visitors at Gray's Lake. As spring progresses the smaller songbirds arrive to Iowa on their migration and Gray's Lake is a good place to see them as they pass through. Yellow-rumped warblers, Baltimore Orioles and an occasional Scarlet Tanager are bright and beautiful species that can be found as the group walks along the trail. Volunteer leader, John Bissell leads the group, pointing out birds, talking about their habits and answering questions. This program is great for beginners or people with some birding experience.  Bring your own spotting scopes and binoculars, or we will have extra binoculars available for you to borrow.

The 2021 session will begin on March 3rd and run through May 26th.
The group will meet at the Gray's Lake Beach Parking Lot until further notice.


Bluebird Boxes

bbR no BCKA series of Bluebird boxes have been installed in some of our parks. Volunteers monitor the activities in boxes March - August and then record the information they gather on nesting and hatchlings.  The boxes create nesting cavities for Bluebirds to utilize in locations that park visitors can easily enjoy their beautiful colors and cheerful singing.

To watch a video about the Bluebird Boxes that we have in the Des Moines City parks  click Here.

Four Bluebird eggs spring 2019.
Bluebird eggs

Monarch Butterfly Tagging

Monarch tag 4    monarch tag 6    monarch tag 5

Monarch tagging is a great way to get the public involved and excited about monarch butterflies and what conservation practices Des Moines Parks and Recreation is taking to help the monarch butterfly . Most people know what a monarch butterfly is but they do not always know that the number of monarch butterflies in the wild has been dropping drastically since the mid 1990’s. The tagging programs are a local part of a larger citizen science project that has been going on since 1992 to better understand the dynamics of the monarch’s spectacular fall migration. Each year more than a quarter of a million tags are used by volunteers across North America who tag monarchs as they migrate through their area on their way to Mexico.

The Monarchs are on their way south, look for new tagging dates to be set for September 2020.

To watch our Monarch Butterfly video click Here.

           Monarch Tag 3       Monarch tag1
Bald Eagle Day
Eagles on log in riverWatch for the 2021 date and times to be released sometime this winter.

The City of Des Moines Parks and Recreation is teaming up with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Fellowship Baptist Church in February to host Bald Eagle Day on the SE 6th Street Bridge. Between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. there will be spotting scopes and people on the bridge to assist with viewing some of the wild Bald Eagles in Des Moines. Inside Fellowship Baptist Church, you will be able to warm up, relax, have a snack and listen to presentations. SOAR - Saving Our Avian Resources will be present with a live education ambassador bald eagle.  All ages are welcome, there will be children's activities and the event is free and open to the public.

2020 offered some great presentations and viewing of Bald Eagles from the bridge.
Bald Eagle Flying in snow
Bald Eagle Nest Watching

Gray’s Lake Park has hosted a nesting pair of Bald Eagles for many years.  The eagles did not nest for the 2020 spring season but the nest is still visible from the bike trail.

The 2019 nest had three eaglets in the nest. Currently they are out of the nest, but you may be lucky enough to see one of them still in the area.


Plant Grow Fly Garden Planting

2020 Plant.Grow.Fly programs are currently cancelled.
We are still growing pollinator plants in the greenhouse so watch for future program options.

Des Moines Parks and Recreation is helping Monarch butterflies and other pollinators in our city parks and you can help too. Each Plant.Grow.Fly program is broken down into three parts:Monarch

  • Learn about what pollinators need to survive and why they are important.
  • Decorate and fill a flower pot to help support pollinators to take home
  • Plant native Iowa species of plants in a butterfly garden.

Be prepared to get your hands dirty and do a little work to help Monarchs and pollinators. Registration for these events is required.

2020 Milkweed for Monarchs is currently cancelled.
We are still growing milkweed plant in the greenhouse so watch for future planting options.

Milkweed for Monarchs
is a new program started in 2019. Volunteers worked with staff to help plant over 800 Milkweed plants at Ewing Park and the James W. Cownie Baseball Park to help provide habitat for Monarch Butterflies in Des Moines. In 2020 there will two mare plantings.

milkweed for monarchsContact Joel at if you have more questions.

iEarth Camps

iEARTH day camps, presented in partnership with Des Moines Parks and Recreation and Science Center of Iowa, are for kids in grades 1-8. These weeklong camps get kids into our parks, enjoying the outdoors while learning about the environment through art, recreation, team and hands-on activities.

Contact Science Center of Iowa for more details and registration.

Fishing Events

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The 2020 Parks and Recreation Free Fishing Friday Program is cancelled.  Look for this event to be back in early June 2021.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources still has proclaimed  June 5, 6 and 7 as Free Fishing Weekend.  On those days you are permitted to fish in Iowa without purchasing a fishing license.

Free Fishing Friday is held annually in June for beginners to try their hand at fishing without needing to purchase a license. If you are interested in giving fishing a try for the first time, come on over and don’t worry, we will be there to help you.  Bait and supplies will be on hand to use at no cost. All ages are welcome. This is a Vamos a Pescar event so there will be translators available to make it even easier to catch that first fish.

Des Moines Parks and Recreation teams together with the Iowa DNR, Des Moines Ikes and the Latino Center of Iowa to make this program a success for everyone in the community. 
shore fishing Copy (2)


Carp Fishing GirlThe 2020 CarpFEST program has been cancelled.  Look for this program to be back early June 2021.

Parks and Recreation partners with the Des Moines Izaak Walton League and the Iowa DNR to bring you CarpFEST.  Join us at Gray’s Lake Park in June, try your hand at Carp fishing and you could win a prize! Gear, bait and instructions are available. Carp caught may be kept by the fisherman or donated onsite to the wildlife rehabilitation organization S.O.A.R. All ages are welcome.

Carp Fishing ManEnter the park from Fleur at the North West Entrance to the park.
Onsite Registration begins at 8:00 am 
Fishing begins at 9:00 am and stops at 11:30. 
Awards will be given out after all the fish have been recorded.

Saving Our Avian Resources is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1999 dedicated to saving our avian resources through raptor rehabilitation, education, and research. SOAR maintains all necessary US Fish & Wildlife Service and Iowa DNR permits to provide the rehabilitation and education.


snowshoe left - CopyStomps can occur down the trail, at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and even under the full moon. All ages are welcome.  Pop-up programs will occur when snow conditions are good. Registration is required and includes snowshoes, instructions and even a cup of hot chocolate!  Enjoy the winter on your own when you rent a pair of snowshoes. Contact our office for more information at 515 248 6369.

2020 Program Dates
Jan. 10     Full Moon Snowshoe     Grandview Park    Click Here to Register
Feb. 7        Full Moon Snowshoe     MacRae Park          Click Here to Register


Owls of Iowa
December 13, 2014-1D4_0506 - Copy - CopyJanuary 17, 2020
6 p.m.
W.C. Walker Enclosed Shelter MacRae Park

Owls live right here in Des Moines but you do not get to see them easily. We will learn about the different kinds of owls that live here in Iowa and meet a live screech owl. Dress for the weather so that we can take a short hike in search of wild live owls in the park. To finish the program participants will make a nesting box for a Screech Owl to take home or donate back to Parks and Recreation.  Pre-registration is required only for participants who choose to build a nesting box, but everyone is welcome to attend the event. Anyone under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
Register Here

Owl with Joel
GPS Activities
GPS Family eggJoin us as we explore the parks using a little bit of technology to guide us along the way. For these programs, temporary geocaches have been hidden in the park for you to try and find.  Participants will be taught how to navigate to the locations using a hand held Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. After some basic instructions you will be sent into the park to look for the geocaches at your own pace.  Each geocache will have a small prize for you to collect and some natural history information about the location.  It is not a race, go at your own pace and enjoy. Registration is required to make sure that there is equipment and prizes for everyone.  Only register the person that will be collecting the prizes.  Everyone can join in, smaller kids will need some help from the adults and teens have really enjoyed these events.

GPS Pot of Gold Hunt at the MacRae Park W.C. Walker Enclosed Shelter
March 7     Start time 1:00. If the program fill up a second start time will be added
Register Here

Cancelled due to Covid-19 Restrictions.
GPS Egg Hunt at the Ewing Park Lilac Arboretum

April 5     Start times at 1:00 and 2:15
A Walk in the Park
Take a quick walk in the park with the Environmental Education staff. Joel highlights nature items that can be found in our Des Moines city parks.
 Skunk Cabbage
 Freezing Rain
 Siberian Squill
 Red-Tailed Hawk
 Early May Apples
 Chorus Frogs
 Dutchman's Breeches
 Jack in the Pulpit
Deer skull
Gray Tree frog

Stand Up Paddleboarding
We have all the gear and instructions, you come prepared to get wet and enjoy the experience.

Introduction to Stand Up Paddleboarding
     July 11, See details and Register Here
     July 23, See details and Register Here
     August 20, See details and Register Here
stand paddle - Copy
Stand Up Paddleboard with the Naturalist
     July 9, See details and Register Here
     July 17, See details and Register Here
     July 21, See details and Register Here
     August 13, See details and Register Here
     August 22, See details and Register Here
     August 26, See details and Register Here