Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Birder’s delight: Patoka River turns 25

September 3, 2019

A birdwatcher sitting on a bench overlooking bottomland hardwood wetlands
A birdwatcher sitting on a bench overlooking bottomland hardwood wetlands at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are celebrating Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area, which was established 25 years ago this week. Today, the refuge spans more than 10,000 acres preserving remnant bottomland hardwood wetlands, restoring diverse bottomland and upland forests, prairies and wetlands, while protecting the water quality of the Patoka River. Take a moment to learn more about this birding destination and plan a trip to experience it first-hand.

In 1994, the refuge was established to provide resting, feeding and nesting habitat for migratory birds. Restoration efforts have focused on the forests, prairies and wetlands along a 30 mile corridor of the Patoka River. The refuge is a birder’s delight as one of the most abundant bird communities in the state. This abundance comes from the variety of habitats found on the refuge which represent the habitats of southern Indiana - upland and bottomland forests, prairies, shrublands and herbaceous wetlands. Asan Audubon Society  globally Important Bird Area, the refuge is one of the only breeding areas for yellow-crowned night heron in Indiana and the Crane Ridge Unit is home to the largest nesting colony of endangered interior least terns east of the Mississippi River.

A prothonotary warbler perched on a tree branch
Prothonotary warbler perched on a tree branch. Photo by James Kawlewski/USFWS.

Located in Gibson and Pike Counties in southwest Indiana, the landscape of Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area reveals the history of southwest Indiana. In 1832, groundbreaking began on the Wabash and Erie Canal and although the canal was abandoned in 1873, you can still see the berm today. From 1850 to 1861, more than 1,000 runaway slaves escaped from Kentucky and passed through the Oakland City area toward Canada. The refuge contains lands that were once stops along the underground railroad, including Snakey Point Marsh were escapees hid from slave hunters in the cattails and Patoka River crossings at Dongola covered bridge and Martin’s Ford. In the early 1900s, the land was ditched and dredged, resulting in failed attempts to drain wetlands and reduce flooding impacts. Some areas, like the upper Patoka River between Pikeville and Winslow, escaped dredging and remains natural. The rich coal deposits in this area led to strip mining beginning in the 1920s and continuing today. Mining occurred until 1990 at what is now known as the Columbia Mine Unit of the refuge. This property is now managed as a diverse prairie and shrubland area by the refuge and teems with rare wildlife, including nesting Henslow’s sparrows and Mississippi kites.

While you can read the history of human use from the landscape, the refuge remains a productive and important habibat for more than 380 documented species. It is home to four federal threatened and endangered species and more than 80 state threatened and endangered species. Wildlife watchers may be fortunate enough to spot bald eagles, Blanchard’s cricket frogs, eastern box turtles, least bitterns, Indiana bats or whooping cranes.

A bobcat footprint in the snow
Bobcat track in the snow. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

The refuge is a great place to get outdoors and enjoy wildlife. In addition to excellent bird watching, photography, hunting, fishing, hiking and canoeing are popular pastimes. Snakey Point Marsh and Cane Ridge are the best public access sites. The Hugh Boyd Fishing Pier and Wildlife Observation Deck provide fishing opportunities for largemouth bass, bluegill and crappie. In the spring and fall, the Maxey birding trail is an ideal location to see migrating woodcock and wood ducks. Winter recreation offers its own advantages. Bobcats may be a rare sight for wildlife watchers, but keen eyes will be rewarded with tracks in the snow. River otters are active year round and any sightings are sure to thrill. Many people from the surrounding communities come to the refuge to volunteer, with more than 5,600 hours volunteered each year!

Thanks for taking some time to learn about this special place as we celebrate 25 years. Learn more about Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and plan your trip!

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 »