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Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge
Duck River Unit

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Tennessee NWR (IBA site)Big Sandy UnitBusseltown Unit
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Tennessee NWR (web site)

Tennessee NWR - Duck River Bottoms

Photo by Patrick Martin

From the Benton County Overlook off Birdsong Road looking over the lower end of Pool 10 (Grassy Lake). The Tennessee River is in the foreground with the lower Duck River Bottoms in the background.

Note: The Duck River Unit is considered part of the IBA site, Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge.

Location:  Eagle Creek and Birdsong areas approximately 7 miles southeast of Camden; and Duck River Bottoms approximately 5 miles south of New Johnsonville, in the counties of Bentley and Humphreys, Tennessee.
Physiographic Province:  PIF 14 (Interior Low Plateaus [Western Highland Rim]); BCR 27 (Southeastern Coastal Plain)
Tennessee IBA Site Map - Tennessee NWR (Duck River Unit)
Geographical Coordinates: 

    Duck River Unit--Lat 355730N  Long. 0875700W
Elevation Range:  354' - 640'
Size:  26,738 acres
USGS 7.5' quad:  Camden, Hustburg, Johnsonville, Rockport, and Waverly.

Description:  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 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.

IBA Criteria:  2, 3, 4a, 4b, 4d, 4g, 5


Photo by Clayton Ferrell

Ducks can be seen in the thousands using moist soil fields to feed.

Ornithological Importance: The upland forested areas provide habitat for many species of forest interior birds and currently support nesting Bald Eagles. The mudflats, particularly those at the mouth of the Duck River, are important fall migration habitat for shorebirds, and wintering habitat for waterfowl and wading birds. In addition to the waterfowl habitats, moist-soil areas provide excellent shorebird habitat during spring migration and rail habitat during fall migration. Sora is common in fall migration. Though numbers do not warrant criteria status, the following Tennessee Endangered/Threatened species are of note: Peregrine Falcon (E), 1 average spring and fall migrations 2000-2004 (Robert Wheat) and Golden Eagle (T), 1 average per winter 2000-2004 (Robert Wheat).
    Note 1. Five pairs of Bald Eagles, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, nest on the unit with up to four additional nesting pairs between the units. Bald Eagle counts are held twice a month during the winter months. The peak count, no matter when it occurs, is used in the refuge's "Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey." "Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey" results 2001-2005 are:  2001 (12 adults, 29 immatures), 2002 (9 adults, 12 immatures), 2003 (13 adults, 28 immatures), 2004 (10 adults, 7 immatures), and  2005 (14 adults, 16 immatures).
    Note 2. King Rail, a Tennessee In Need of Management species, is found only in the Lower Duck River Bottoms of the unit and contains one of the highest concentrations of this species known in Tennessee. Number of individuals and locations from 2001-2005 are:  2001 (6 birds, 4 different locations), 2002 (3 birds, 3 different locations), 2003 (1 bird, 1 location), 2004 (2 birds, 1 location, 2005 (5 birds, 4 different locations). No nests have been detected, but assumed to be breeding as established territories and pairs have been detected.
    Note 3. The Duck River Bottoms provides for a diversity of wetland habitat groups that are limited within Tennessee. Habitats range from mudflats, to shallow open water, to moist soil, to marsh. See specific groups under King Rail (Note 2), Wading Birds (Note 6), and Shorebirds (Note 7).
    Note 4.
The five-year waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) average from the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey," 2001-2005, is 136,202 birds (29% of the statewide wintering total). The total annual number of waterfowl during that survey period is 240,413 (2001), 144,195 (2002), 116,062 (2003), 49,911 (2004), and 130,428 (2005). The five-year average for the major wintering duck species is Mallard (88,058 [31% of the statewide wintering total]), Gadwall (11,256 [33% of the statewide wintering total]), Northern Pintail (9,457 [64% of the statewide wintering total]), American Wigeon (6,153 [52% of the statewide wintering total]),  American Black Duck (5,687 [54% of the statewide wintering total]), Green-winged Teal (5,545 [57% of the statewide wintering total]), and Ring-necked Duck (3,037 [25% of the statewide wintering total]). Canada Goose five-year average during the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey," 2001-2005, is 4,434 birds. A statewide comparison, 2002-2005, shows a 4-year average of 3,160 birds or 24% of statewide wintering total (data represents only four years as there were ten times more geese reported statewide in 2001 than normal). Most numbers of waterfowl species peak higher during the migration periods, especially fall migration, than the period of the "Tennessee Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey." American Coot peak numbers within a survey period 2001-2004 include:  October 21-27, 2001 (21,450), November 4-10, 2001 (10,720), October 15-31, 2002 (4,820), November 1-15, 2002, (3,550), October 16-31, 2003 (4,410), November 1-15, 2003 (4,540), October 16-31, 2004 (3,400), and November 1-15, 2004 (9,680).
    Note 5. The Grassy Lake Rookery of Great Blue Herons in the dewatering area of the Duck River Unit for over five decades is no longer viable. Many of the trees are dead with few remaining limbs. Nesting use has been declining for several years (2 nests in 2005). Surveys date back to 1954, but the rookery may be even older, peaking in 1992 with 666 nests, mainly of Great Blue Herons. There was some nesting by Little Blue Herons and Great Egrets in the 1950's and 1960's. Double-crested Cormorants nests include: 1994--11 nests that produced two young in each of three nests; 1995--1 nest with no young known to be produced; 1998--3 nests with no young know to be produced. At the same time however new rookeries have become established and it is assumed that the herons moved to these locations. They now nest on at least three islands, the largest colony near the mouth of the Duck River at approximately river mile 1. There are approximately 250-300 Great Blue Heron nests on the island of the Duck River. The other islands are near the mouth of the Duck River, both just upstream and downstream of where it meets the Tennessee River. There have been a few nesting attempts in recent years by Great Egrets on these new islands at the mouth of the Duck River, but their success is not known (Clayton Ferrell).
    Note 6. There is no specific population data on waders. General comments are: Great Blue Heron--most abundant wader and breeder, present year-round; Great Egret--common in spring and fall migration periods, occasionally in winter, a few may breed; Little Blue Heron--uncommon during spring and fall migration periods; Snowy Egret--a few mainly in late summer; Green Heron--common breeding season; and Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned night-herons--present during the summer period.
    Note 7. A shorebird survey is along a defined route in the Lower Duck River Bottoms. Typically around 500 individuals are counted in a day during peak spring migration. Fall habitat is limited but similar numbers are observed. Shorebirds are usually counted and not identified as to species.
    Note 8. American White Pelicans occur in good numbers in the fall into winter and in lesser numbers in the spring. Peak numbers within a survey period 2001-2004 include:  November 15-30, 2001 (50), November 1-15, 2002 (340), November 16-30, 2003 (301), October 16-31, 2004 (340), and November 1-15, 2004 (374).
    Note 9. There are four Point Count routes, two road routes (1995-2005, 20 points each) that cover a variety of habitats and two hiked routes (1997-2005, 10 and 12 points) that are in mature deciduous forested habitats. The survey design selected is recording periods of 0 to 3 minutes and 3 to 5 minutes using a bull's-eye of <25 meters, 25-50 meters, and > 50 meters. Some years were missed due to flooding and road conditions.
    Note 10. For 20 years there has been a Wood Duck nest box and young banding program conducted on the refuge. In 2004, there were 174 Wood Ducks boxes on the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge--171 boxes on the Duck River Unit and 3 boxes on the Big Sandy Unit. Most boxes are located on the Duck River Unit because of the extensive appropriate habitat for Wood Ducks. The boxes are on two different maintenance programs. Forty-three boxes are checked intensively during the nesting season and 131 boxes are checked annually, prior to nesting. The intensive checks allow for a more accurate counting of the broods produced and the actual number of eggs hatched in those boxes. The boxes that were checked annually were recorded as one brood and 10 hatched eggs for each successful box. Boxes are checked May-July, and December and January. Most losses are due to woodpeckers pecking the eggs. This problem is on the increase with no reasonable solutions available. In 2005, there was an increase of 7 boxes due to the integration of boxes from a graduate study.
        Results on the Wood Duck nesting box program in 2004 were:  174 total boxes up, 174 total useable boxes, 129 used, 45 unused, 103 (59%) used by Wood Ducks, 72 (70%) number of successful Wood Duck boxes, 112 (67%) number of nesting attempts successful, 75 Wood duck broods produced, 726 total Wood Ducks hatched, 363 number of Wood Ducks to flight stage, and 4 number of dump nests. The refuge has averaged 1,000 Wood Ducks banded per year for the past 20 years. (Number banded in 2002 and 2003 was below average, but is part of a cycle that always has occurred.) Perhaps no other refuge in the country has such a consistent Wood Duck banding program. Hooded Merganser also uses these boxes. In 2004, there were 26 nesting attempts with a 69% success rate. The average Hooded Merganser use is normally around 10-15 nesting attempts per year. Eastern Screech-Owl commonly use the boxes as winter roost sites and normally 1-2 boxes per year are used for breeding (none used in 2004) (Clayton Ferrell).

Site Criteria



Avg. No Season

Max. No. Season

Years of Data



Bald Eagle (NOM)  (See Note 1 above.)

B, W

35 (winter)





King Rail  (NOM)  (See Note 2 above.)






3Habitat:   Wetland  (See Note 3 above.)Year-round   6


Waterfowl  (See Note 4 above.)







Wading Birds:  Breeding   (See Note 5 above.)


250 nests

275 nests


5a, 6


Wading Birds: Feeding/Migration (See Note 6 above.)


500 estimate

1,000 estimate




Shorebirds (See Note 7 above.)





5a, 6

4gCongregatory Species:  American White Pelican (See Note 8 above.)FM2813742001-20046
5Monitoring:  Point Counts  (See Note 9 above.)B  1995-20054
5Monitoring:  Wood Duck (See Note 10 above.)B  1985-20056, 7
Season1   B = Breeding, W = Wintering, SM = Spring Migration, FM = Fall Migration
Source 2  1-Atlas Breeding Birds of Tennessee 2-Breeding Bird Surveys 3-Christmas Bird Counts
4-Point Counts 5-Refuge Counts (a-refuge counts, no specific name; b-"Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey,"
c-biweekly "Waterfowl Population Summary"  6-Personal observations (Robert Wheat) 7-Other (Clayton Ferrell)

Ownership:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee NWR, 3006 Dinkins Lane, Paris, TN 38242, 731-642-2091.
   Contact:  Robert Wheat, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee NWR, 3006 Dinkins Lane, Paris, TN 38242, 731-642-2091, Robert_Wheat@fws.gov .

Conservation Concerns:  Serious concern is the proposed changes in the fall drawdown schedule of Kentucky Reservoir that will impact shorebird and waterfowl habitat on mudflats.  Major concern is introduced plants and animals.  Potential concerns are water pollution, air pollution, and disturbance to birds.

Management Program:

Submitted by:  Robert WheatU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee NWR, 3006 Dinkins Lane, Paris, TN 38242, 731-642-2091
, Robert_Wheat@fws.gov .

Additional Contributors:  Clayton Ferrell, Tennessee NWR, Duck River Unit, 550 Refuge Lane, New Johnsonville, TN 37134, 931-535-2465, ext 15, Clayton_Ferrell@fws.gov .

Approved under the umbrella IBA site Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge: December 2005--Yes 7  No 0

This page was last updated on 02/19/06.