Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Flyway refuge turns 80

December 23, 2016

Snow Geese at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Bob Barry/USFWS.
Snow Geese at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Bob Barry/USFWS.

Mallards in Walter’s Millet during drawdown. Photo Jacob Randa/USFWS.
Mallards in Walter’s Millet during drawdown.
Photo Jacob Randa/USFWS.

Working on headquarters foundation in 1938. Photo by USFWS.
Working on headquarters foundation in 1938.
Photo by USFWS.

Moving dirt from bluff to North Gate in 1938. Photo by USFWS.
Moving dirt from bluff to North Gate in 1938.
Photo by USFWS.

Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge is turning 80 today! Help celebrate by learning about what makes this flyway hotspot so special.

Chautauqua was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 80 years ago on this day through an executive order which authorized the federal government to purchase land owned by the former Chautauqua Drainage and Levee District. Largely made up of backwater lakes and bottomland forests, the refuge has small upland woodlands and prairies which welcome a huge diversity of birds.

Under that order, these lands and waters became a protected breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. Currently, the area provides habitat for 60 to 70 percent of the migratory birds that migrate along the Illinois River. The bulk of the refuge is 4,790 acres in size, with the Cameron-Billsbach Unit, adding another 1,823 acres.

With Peoria, Illinois only 40 miles away, more than 100,000 people are within an hour's drive. People love to visit Chautauqua to see large concentrations of bald eagles, shorebirds and waterfowl during the spring and fall migration. At peak, you can see clouds of ducks and geese, with migration numbers totaling more than 200,000 birds.

While these are common sightings, lucky visitors have also seen vagrant shorebirds from other parts of the world. Most recently, a curlew sandpiper, native to Siberia and much of the eastern hemisphere, visited the refuge!

It isn’t just local birders who know a great birding spot when they see one! Chautauqua has been designated an Important Bird Area as part of the Western Shorebird Reserve Network. What makes this refuge unique is its location along the Illinois River, squarely within the Mississippi flyway. It is one of the very few true sanctuary areas for migrating waterfowl along the middle Illinois River.

The refuge’s diverse habitats also host more than 150 species of songbirds at various times of the year. Significant tracts of bottomland forest support specialist species during periods of both nesting and migration. Notable species include prothonotary warblers, red-headed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers and rusty blackbirds. Low water during summer drawdowns, and the resulting mudflats, attract more than 30 species of shorebirds. Sandpipers, along with 10 species of gulls and terns, especially enjoy these temporary habitats.

The surrounding area is rich with Native American history, and their impact can still be seen on the landscape today in the form of burial mounds. Rockwell Mound, located in the nearest town of Havana, was the site of a debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Another small mound sits less than 100 yards from the headquarters building.

The original levees were built in large part by Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration crews using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows in the mid to late 1930s.

Scientific research is also a part of the history of Chautauqua, with the refuge being home to Stephen A. Forbes Biological Station, the oldest inland biological field station in the country. The refuge has been a leader in waterfowl and biological research for more than 120 years. To that end, legendary waterfowl ecologist Frank Bellrose did much of his work based out of that facility.

Chautauqua has also been home to some unsavory characters as well. Long-time residents of the area tell stories about the perennial appearance of Al Capone and his cronies to hunt the area around the refuge every fall.

Learn more about Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/chautauqua/

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

Learn more »