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Tennessee NWR - Duck River Unit

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Site Description and Habitats

The Duck River Unit of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge primarily consists of highly dissected uplands that are largely forested, the adjacent waters and seasonal mudflats of Kentucky Lake, and the intensively managed bottomlands of the Duck River Bottoms. Most of the active management occurs within the Duck River Bottoms. There are 14 impoundments totaling approximately 4,000 surface acres of water. Managed habitats in this area include approximately 1,500 acres of agriculture, 1,300 acres of moist-soil wetlands, and 1,200 acres of open water and woody habitats. The agriculture lands are managed for waterfowl using a cooperative farming program where local farmers plant the fields in row crops and the rent is a portion of the crop that is left standing in the fields. The crops left for waterfowl usually are corn, millet, and winter wheat. Moist-soil management consists of lowering the water in some impoundments to allow annual plants to germinate naturally and gradually flooding to provide wetland habitat. The focal species of the Duck River Unit are shorebirds, waterfowl, and Bald Eagles.

Bird species of interest

Spring and Fall Migration: Nearly all passage warblers, vireos, thrushes and flycatchers can be found. Prothonotary Warblers and Osprey are common. Warbling Vireos nest along the river edges. Wood Duck and Hooded Mergansers breed on site. Shorebirds can be good in April and May pending habitat, while fall migration begins in mid-July and goes through fall, pending habitat availability. Willet, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, American Avocet, among many more common shorebird species can be found. Sora can be easy to find in spring and fall. Sedge Wrens arrive in mid-August, establish territories, and attempt breeding. In late August, willow thickets along the wildlife loop can be good for Yellow Warbler, Louisiana (late birds) and Northern Waterthrush (early birds), Alder and Willow Flycatcher, and Black-and-white Warblers. Gulls and terns can be found on the river, including Black, Common and Caspian Terns. Lincoln's Sparrow is a fall highlight. Peregrine Falcon and Merlin occur during migration. All regularly occurring species of swallow can be abundant.

Summer: Late spring and early fall shorebirds. Prothonotary Warbler, Killdeer, Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Osprey.

Winter: LeConte's Sparrow, Golden Eagle (rare, but regular), Savannah, Swamp, White-throated, White-crowned, and Song Sparrow. Waterfowl include Snow, Ross's, Cackling, Canada, and Greater White-fronted Geese, most dabblers and diving ducks occur.

Year-Round: Bald Eagle, American White Pelicans (nearly year round).

Rarities Seen at this Site: Purple Gallinule, Glaucous Gull, Neotropic Cormorant, Least Tern (rare away from the Mississippi River), Piping Plover, Brown Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Yellow Rail, Tricolored Heron. King Rail nested here as recently as 2007.

eBird species list via Hotspot Explorer - hot spot for the entire Duck River Unit, there are also individual hot spots for each individual managed pool.

Submit your data to eBird here

Other wildlife viewing opportunities
White-tailed Deer, butterflies and dragonflies can be abundant.

Detailed directions for birding Tennessee NWR - Duck River Unit
From Hwy 70 in New Johnsonville, you can follow the signs to Tennessee NWR - Duck River Unit. From Hwy 70S, head south on Long St. (large brown NWR sign on the highway) following the signs to the refuge main entrance. Follow Long St for a couple miles to the first stop sign. Make a left at the stop sign and then the first right onto Hickman Rd. Travel about 1/3 mile and follow sign to the left onto Refuge Lane, which takes you to the main part of the refuge. Between Nov 15-Mar 15, Blue Goose Wildlife Loop and all side roads off the main road, except the road to Pintail Observation Blind, are closed. Although many roads are closed, the blind provides some nice views of waterfowl and eagles, while many fields and the river can be scanned from the main road and boat ramps.

From entering the NWR through the main gate, at the bottom of the hill, turn right turn and travel along the base of the bluffs and through a small area of bottomland forest. A parking lot for Pintail Point Observation Blind is on the left in about 0.5 miles. The blind is good in winter when waterfowl are present. Continue past the parking area for the blind (if the gate is open) through woods and to a 4-way intersection. Make a right and park on the wide shoulder, staying off the road. Walk out the road through the ponds and scan the ponds and air. In spring, summer, and fall, the ponds are open to foot traffic if you want to get muddy, but get closer to very distant shorebirds.

From the main entrance, continue straight into the bottoms. Scout out habitat and open water for shorebirds, grassland-shrub birds, etc. When Blue Goose Loop is open, be sure to explore and look for bitterns, sedge and marsh wrens, wading birds, and shorebirds. The willows and thickets along the road sides can be great for flycatchers (Alder and Willow) in late August, Yellow Warbler, both waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Orchard Oriole, among other migrants. The wet meadows along the Blue Goose Loop are where Sedge Wrens establish territories in August and attempt nesting. Park off the road at intersections and in designated parking areas (never blocking gates) and walk the levee roads.

Along the main gravel road are views of the river. Park off the road and scan the river. When the river is low and in season, shorebirds and dabbling ducks can be abundant. Upon entering the refuge, take the first left turn and drive north through various ponds and fields. Some fields are fallow and good for secretive sparrows like LeConte's and likely Nelson's (fields here: 35.983389, -87.924792). The north end of the refuge tends to be mostly farm fields with little habitat for anything interesting.

Access to the west side of the NWR at the "Pump House", travel on Hickman Rd. past Refuge Lane for 2.1 miles around several sharp bends in the road. At 2.1 miles from Refuge Lane, bare left at the split in the road. You quickly come to a T in the road and make a left. This road takes you to a boat ramp and access to the pump house levee. You can park and walk the levee, however there may be signs prohibiting walking past the pump house in winter (15 Nov-15 Mar) when the majority of the refuge is closed (waterfowl sanctuary).

From the pumphouse parking lot, scan the river for gulls, terns, and pelicans. Walk the levee and scan the impoundment closely. Gulls, terns, and wading birds concentrate on the far side in the shallows. Walk one mile to additional good shorebird habitat. The willows and thickets along the levee can be great for flycatchers (Alder and Willow) in late August, Yellow Warbler, both waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Orchard Oriole, among other migrants. In summer, Osprey are common and Double-crested Cormorants are abundant in the river channel.

Lat-Long (GPS) coordinates
Refuge Lane main entrance to the refuge: 35.97439, -87.95113
Parking area near refuge shop on east side of Pool 1: 35.961091, -87.96612
Blue Goose Wildlife Loop begins here: 35.959841, -87.941873
Pump House parking lot: 35.968004, -87.993711

Map of the Duck River Bottoms

Fees and Hours
No fees are required to access these areas. The areas are accessible during daylight hours. Main road is open year round, as is the Pintail Point Observation Blind, however the Blue Goose Wildlife Drive (where the best habitat often is) and other roads are closed from November 15th to March 15th.

Watch for closures due to flooding. Cottonmouths are common and may be hiding in grass on the road shoulders and sun themselves on the levees. Weather can be variable and sun is intense in summer and fall, so bring sunscreen!

There are no restroom facilities.

Tennessee NWR's

Info for other sites
Tennessee's Watchable Wildlife web site