Waterbirds can be found in waterfowl impoundments, canals, creeks, mudflats, swamps and along the shores of the Tennesse River throughout the year on Wheeler NWR.
Colonial waterbirds are a conspicuous component of the wildlife assemblage at Wheeler NWR. Species commonly encountered using refuge wetlands include great blue heron, great egret, little blue heron, cattle egret, green heron, and yellow-crowned night-heron.
Less commonly seen species include snowy egret, tricolored heron, white ibis, and glossy ibis. Historically, anhingas were seen in small numbers throughout the summer and nested in Beaverdam Swamp in 1950. Wood storks were frequently seen during their post-breeding dispersal in late summer, but recent records are few.
A large heronry containing 250-300 great blue heron and great egret nests each was active in Beaverdam Swamp through 1951, though the heronry was abandoned shortly thereafter. Speculation at that time was that colony abandonment was related to DDT contamination. In 2003, a small nesting colony of 10-15 great blue heron nests was discovered near Blackwell Swamp. By the summer of 2006, the number of great blue heron nests had increased to near 40 and, for the first time since 1951, 8-10 great egret nests were discovered. Species known to now nest on the Refuge include great blue heron, great egret, green heron and yellow-crowned night-heron.
Another large mixed heronry near the Refuge at Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area was discovered in 1962. Species nesting included great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, cattle egret, and black-crowned night-heron. At peak nesting during 1962-1963, “several thousand” nests were noted. The nesting site was abandoned in 1965 for reasons unknown.
Marsh birds, due to their secretive habits, are infrequently encountered but do occur in good numbers during migration. Smaller numbers occur during winter and summer, with a few probably nesting in refuge moist soil areas and impoundments.
The most commonly seen species include; American bittern, least bittern, Virginia rail, sora and American coot. Least bitterns and American coots nest sporadically; king rails have nested on at least two occasions; and, nesting by common moorhens has been suspected in the past.
Shorebirds (including American Woodcock)
Shorebirds migrate through the Tennesse River Valley from the southernmost parts of South America to the northernmost part of North America. They typically probe in soft mud and shallow water for invertebrates. These birds generally move through during spring and fall, foraging as they migrate. Few shorebirds nest on the Refuge, while fair numbers overwinter.
Shorebirds commonly seen on or adjacent to the refuge during migration include black-bellied plover, semipalmated plover, killdeer, greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, solitary sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, western sandpiper, least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, dunlin, short-billed dowitcher and Wilson’s snipe.
In winter, killdeer, greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, least sandpiper, dunlin, and Wilson’s snipe are common. The only species commonly nesting on the refuge is killdeer. American woodcock nests in small numbers almost annually while spotted sandpiper nests sporadically. The mudflats and shallow water areas of Limestone Bay, Garth Slough, the Tennessse River and its backwaters and the impoundments within the White Springs Units, Buckeye Units, Penny Bottom Units are the most important refuge shorebird habitats.
American Woodcock are migratory game birds that occur throughout the forested portions of the eastern United States. The abundance of woodcock on the Refuge has not been quantified to date, but they should be present in suitable habitat. Wintering habitat includes moist bottomland hardwood forests with brush and understory, especially those in close association with agricultural fields and old field succession. The shrub-scrub and dense habitats found in certain portions of the Refuge provide good daytime cover for woodcock.